Heartwarming isn't a term normally associated with Elvis Costello, but that's precisely the quality that reigned during his show Friday at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center.
Currently on a college tour with Nick Lowe, Costello braved his way through an 80-minute set despite, as he told the near-capacity crowd, doctor's orders to remain in bed to nurse a desperately hoarse voice. Yet his infirmity more clearly underscored one point of the show's predominantly solo acoustic format: the primacy of a great song. The brilliance of Costello's compositions came through without elaborate arrangements, flashy production or even his typical vocal shadings.
Although most of his songs are built on emotionally combative themes, Costello himself was unusually jocular. He asked the audience to sing along if his voice began to fail and further encouraged fans to participate, creating a remarkable intimacy even in the 5,000-plus-seat gymnasium/multipurpose facility.
The show incorporated some of the same offbeat props introduced on last fall's tour, including the Spinning Songbook, a makeshift piano bar with stools and a go-go cage where several fans gyrated as Costello ferociously sang "Pump It Up." (At last he formally acknowledged that song's genesis in Dylan by merging it with a few verses of "Subterranean Homesick Blues.")
But rather than being the point of the show, the stage devices, which also included a slide projector and screen to show what Costello said were his vacation pictures, simply aided him in keeping the audience guessing over what was coming next.
What did come next was a predictably unpredictable mix of new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, including a pair of exquisitely conceived medleys fusing "New Amsterdam" with the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Radio Sweetheart" with Van Morrison's ebullient "Jackie Wilson Said."
Perhaps it was the lively university atmosphere, but Costello was less inclined than usual to resort to a "greatest hits" set list. Instead, he concentrated on less-frequently performed recent numbers such as "Suit of Lights" and a drastically rewritten and expanded version of "American Without Tears."
In doing so, he again illustrated his astonishing creativity, which has rarely flagged in more than 150 songs on a dozen albums he has turned out in the decade since his debut. Occasionally he has turned phrases merely for the cleverness of the wordplay, yet Friday there was nary a line that wasn't thought-provoking in itself or that sounded like it was written only to make a rhyme or complete a verse.
Although he left without performing most of his signature songs — prompting audible grumbles from a few fans — Costello's spontaneity, passion and, yes, warmth should stand as an object lesson to any performer who sees live performance only as a tool for boosting record sales.
Nick Lowe, who joined Costello at the night's end for some (accidentally) unamplified vocal accompaniment on Lowe's "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding)," emphasized poignancy and romance — in place of his old irony and black humor — in the recent material that dominated his solo opening set.
But even with backing only from an acoustic guitar, Lowe's songs brimmed with melodic invention that, like Costello's songs, thoroughly outclasses so many of their slightly younger countrymen.
The pair's college campus tour also included a stop at San Diego State University on Saturday.