Elvis Costello — former angry-young-crank turned masterful songwriter — does not let time stand still. At some solo acoustic shows earlier this year, the Englishman re-explored some of the fan favorites from a formidable catalog that stretches from 1977's My Aim Is True to the current All This Useless Beauty.
The explorations continued on Tuesday at the Universal Amphitheatre, where Costello fronted his longtime backup trio the Attractions for a dynamic, two-hour performance in which old favorites were given some startling — and often very satisfying — new twists.
Like Bob Dylan, Costello is a performer for whom songs are growing, changing entities — merely to replay a recorded version would be an insult to the music. So "Party Girl" became an aching acoustic ballad, "Green Shirt" was an ultra-heavy performance piece, and "Pump It Up" was retooled as a kind of electric skiffle tune.
Some of the shifts — "Chelsea" as acid-jazz workout — seemed more willful than inspired, but Costello's desire to perform without a safety net added an excitement that's unusual at major venue concerts.
The Attractions remain consummate players, perfectly suited to the bristling emotions and varied colors of Costello's work. And Costello, for all the rasp and wheeze in his voice, is a uniquely powerful song stylist. His guitar solos were tentative, almost comic endeavors, and the Attractions are not at their best when jamming. But the loose, bumbling moments made the highlights of the show — a beautifully belted "Motel Matches," a gloriously ragged "Accidents Will Happen" — all the more stunning.
The crowd was delighted with Costello's unorthodox approaches — he and the Attractions were summoned for three encores, and closed out the evening with a forceful "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?"