A man out of time, indeed.
Portly in the middle, scraggly on top, these days Elvis Costello looks more like that Beat generation pooh-bah, Allen Ginsberg, than a candidate for MTV's sculpture garden of idealized nearly-nudes.
Actually, a well-rounded look sort of fits a rocker capable of putting on as well-rounded a display as Costello did in a long, deeply satisfying session Friday night at the Pacific Amphitheatre. Costello may not be hot commercially, but he and a fine four-man backing band generated several colors and degrees of musical heat.
With Costello's latest album, Mighty Like a Rose, having fallen off the charts, the Pacific tried to fill empty seats by offering a price 20 years out of time to day-of-show ticket buyers.
Good move. The $5-a-ticket fire sale helped jack the crowd size to a respectable 5,000 or so, providing a healthy critical mass for rock fission to take place.
Costello brought some timeless musical virtues into clear view. Chief among those was the ideal that music isn't meant to come at us in jarring, disconnected clips, but in thought-out sequences in which players can burrow deep into a mood or craft a coherent dialogue among styles and themes.
The show opened with "Tokyo Storm Warning," a raucous number grounded in Bob Dylan. It could have been taken as a signal because several times during the show, Costello and his band, the Rude 5, would capture the rough but stately classicism of Dylan's work with the Band. Larry Knechtel's warmly coursing organ parts and chiming piano were mainly responsible for calling up that comparison — particularly on a majestic reading of "Man Out Of Time" during one of Costello's four encores.
Costello settled into his first extended mood with "So Like Candy," one of five songs drawn from Mighty Like a Rose. At first, this song for a solitary, late-night lounge seemed ill-plotted following "The Other Side Of Summer," a willfully dyspeptic number encased in a smooth pop coating. Lacking the sardonically intended Beach Boys harmonies of the album version, "Summer" fell flat until rescued by a good, muscular instrumental coda borrowed from "The Song is Over" by the Who.
Going from the California sun of "Summer" to the dank saloon of "Candy" was jarring, but one soon got acclimated and tuned in to the psychological flow of an unfolding sequence. "Candy" was the sob of a man trying to fathom why his love disappeared; next Costello moved into "I Want You," where the reaction to loss turned angry and lacerating. He ended the triptych with a gently yearning saloon standard, "The Very Thought Of You."
Costello succeeded in his other departures from rock norms. "Watching The Detectives" was given a jazz-flavored reworking that made it very dark, cool and dreamlike. Sandwiched between halves of "Detectives" was "Let Him Dangle," a half-jaunty, half-bitter takeoff on a similarly eerie theme of crime and death. Far from resenting this intensely played experiment with one of his most familiar songs, the audience gave it a standing ovation.
Costello then moved to the piano, where, after quipping about his lack of keyboard acumen, he sustained the strange and haunted mood with "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4." Singing in a broken voice, he made vivid the song's depiction of what it's like to feel a ghost passing near.
Two rockabilly and R&B oldies, "Hidden Charms" and Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo," lightened the mood, but not completely: Marc Ribot's trademark guitar dissonances on Berry-style licks hinted at something off-kilter. Too many of those nerve-jarring "Ribotics" could have skewed things badly, but he stayed in check, and Costello weighed in with the occasional thick, rough-hewn lead guitar part to strike a balance. Attractions alumnus Pete Thomas on drums and Jerry Scheff, a white-haired veteran of Elvis Presley's '70s bands, gave the Rude 5 the flexibility for all its style jumping.
A long and brilliant home stretch grappled with moral questions. The bitter Mose Allison blues, "Everybody's Crying Mercy," established the target (hypocrisy and other forms of human perfidy). Then Costello began throwing punches with his own songs. "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," swarmed and buzzed like a locust attack, with Costello's guttural Beefheart growl supplying mad, horrific commentary. Later, during "God's Comic," Costello followed Randy Newman and assumed the role of a deity disgusted with the lowness of his highest creation. Costello's rhyming "God" wasn't too keen on the recent Gulf War: "A frightened child becomes a hero / Everything means less than zero."
Given that framework, such songs as "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and a surprisingly urgent "Alison" were more than routine encore servings of Costello standards. They seemed to comment on our embattled prospects for finding sanity and meaning amid ruinous circumstances. "Pump It Up" hammered a lid on the two-hour, 15-minute concert, suggesting that, if all else fails, we can cauterize our wounds with the musical equivalent of a branding iron.
The La's, who opened, also seemed like a band out of its own time. This very young British group offered almost nothing in the way of visual show, but delivered musically. Its clean, crafted, briskly if unassumingly played pop recalled all sorts of mid-'60s sources, from the Monkees to the Hollies to The Who.