On his arrival in the late '70s, Elvis Costello established himself virtually overnight as one of the most compelling rock songwriters since Bob Dylan. His clever word play, sharp wit and penetrating insights about relationships continued to serve him well through the '80s.
On Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre, the bespectacled Costello — still wearing the dark suit and pointy shoes that initially set him apart from the ratty punks and dinosaur rockers of the '70s — reunited with his original band the Attractions before an adoring audience that treated him as if he were still very much this year's model.
Though the Attractions played with precision and Costello hardly missed a note vocally, the music — especially the more recent material — seemed too sterile to stir any feelings beyond the rush of pure entertainment and the warmth of nostalgia.
There's nothing wrong with those qualities, but they pale next to the originality and daring that once were the cornerstones of Costello's work. At this point in his career, he seems like a brilliant craftsman at a time when a new generation of rockers is reaffirming that it's not just craft that makes great pop music — it's also the raw purging of emotion.
Although the songs from his earliest albums did sound dated on Wednesday, they still had their original angry bite, and their tense edge cut through the polite atmosphere. Newer material, though, tended to be subdued and finely tuned, more concerned with perfect pop lines than emotional urgency.
Costello's half-croon/half-hiss still sounded strong and vibrant, but it wasn't until the tail end of the set that the audience — predominantly longtime fans — got out of their seats for the classics "Watching the Detectives," "Alison" and "Pump It Up."
The Attractions — keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas — were the players on Costello's great early records; their contributions at the Amphitheatre were mixed. The faster, harder songs came out energized and fun, but the intensity of the ballads was compromised by the instrumentation. The keyboards became overwhelming and even grating at points, drowning the songs in their acrobatics, and a perfectionist approach sometimes squeezed the music dry.
The few moments Costello sang alone with his acoustic guitar glimmered with personality and a sense of who he really is these days. The feeling that emerged was as powerful as his old displays of anger and bitterness, and it showed that while striking a complex musical balance is admirable, putting your unedited self in the songs is what gives them life.
Elvis Costello & the Attractions and Crash Test Dummies play tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. $32.50-$22.50. Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, 8 p.m. $28.50-$12.50. Monday at the Starlight Bowl, 20007 Pan American Way, San Diego, 7:30 p.m. $34 and $27.50.