Unfettered from side players and recently past the task of writing his first opera, Elvis Costello played a wide-ranging and crowd-pleasing solo show Saturday at Clowes Hall.
The audience — marking the 150th anniversary of Butler University — heard Costello before seeing him, as he strummed guitar chords from the wings and then swung for the fences with opening number "The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes."
He quickly served notice that his voice remains one of rock's true marvels. It can be soothing, weepy and cruel all at once.
For a counterpoint, he employed an acoustic guitar that featured a raw jangle and distorted electric tones when needed.
It would have been fine if Costello played that instrument all night, but a hollow-bodied electric model did help him approximate dreamy echoes of Roy Orbison during "She Handed Me a Mirror."
"Mirror" was an unexpected treat, freshly picked from "The Secret Songs of Hans Christian Andersen" — the opera that Costello unveiled this month in Copenhagen, Denmark.
It's rare to hear a crowd audibly wince at the opening line of a brand-new song, but Costello has mustered one of his all-time lyrical zingers with "Mirror."
The set-up: Famed author Andersen hoped to win the hand of 19th century vocalist Jenny Lind. Hinting at a self-deprecating parallel between himself and wife Diana Krall, Costello told the audience that Andersen was no matinee idol.
So how did Lind tell Andersen that their love would never bloom? She gave him a mirror.
Costello generously shared three more tunes from "Secret Songs," plus the riled emotions of "River in Reverse." Not far from the revered realm of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," "River" answers the fallout of Hurricane Katrina by questioning a government ruled by "money and superstition."
Elsewhere, Costello was something that unplugged singer-songwriters usually aren't: a ham.
After giving exceptionally strong efforts, he stalked the stage to coax large ovations. "Every Day I Write the Book," "Veronica" and "Needle Time" (from last year's Delivery Man album) undoubtedly earned their hoots and hollers.
And by tucking bits of the Beatles' "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" and the Troggs' "Wild Thing" into his own songs, Costello gave the crowd three more reasons to cheer.