It was intimacy with an edge — a razor-sharp edge — as Elvis Costello, with only a guitar and sometimes a piano player, showcased songs from his new album at the cozy John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Monday.
Costello looked like anything but the rock star he is. At times he performed with a hand stuffed in his baggy black pants while his other one alternated between conducting and expression. With a casual jacket and shirt and his trademark dark-rimmed glasses, of course, he took on the air of someone showing you around his house — relaxed and gracious. He chatted amiably between tunes, telling amusing stories but never for long, for the emphasis was on the songs themselves, mostly from his new album, All This Useless Beauty, which was released Tuesday.
Twenty years down the line from his stunning debut album, My Aim Is True, Costello has only gotten better, and the spare format of Tuesday's show served to illustrate his formidable songwriting talent.
Strip away the production veneer of most rock songs and you have, well, not much. With Costello, it's the opposite. His songs seem to grow with strength and sophistication, and what is sometimes lost in the pop production comes to the fore as Costello relied mostly on an acoustic guitar and the terrific playing of pianist Steve Nieve for accompaniment.
While Costello's pleasant banter gave the evening an intimate feel, there was no mistaking the bite in his voice or the caustic observations in his songs. His heavy vibrato voice serves his songs well.
At one point Costello joked that "we do all the classics" when he took a dig at a rock journalist who thought there was a classical reference in his song "Poor Fractured Atlas" off the new album. But there is no doubt that Costello has plenty of influences from classical to jazz, and they show in his work. What other rocker but Costello could write a song with Bert Bacharach ("God Give Me Strength") and make that hybrid sound good? Costello also made another dig at Broadway's Andrew Lloyd Webber (he made one in the song "God's Comic"), and why not? Costello could blow him away if he ever turned his attention to the musical theater.
Only a couple of times did Costello reach back into the past ("Accidents Will Happen" and "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" during the encore), but each of those songs sounded as fresh and vibrant as ever. It was clear as the evening wore on that Costello was enjoying himself, and the audience was, too. In a town of vapid glitz, this concert was not senseless beauty.