IRVINE — It says something for the depth and character of Elvis Costello's artistry that his performance Saturday night at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre was practically his least-ambitious show in 17 years, yet it will probably tally up as one of the finest concerts of this year.
Costello has always worked best when faced with a challenge, and he usually gives himself a good one. In the late '70s it was that of asserting his pared-down, personal amalgam of punk and pub rock amid the prevailing musical climate of "I've got a synthesized orchestra and a big hairy chest, so pay up, Bub."
In subsequent years, he performed with a real orchestra himself and made it work, went to Nashville for a country album, teamed up with Paul McCartney, wrote songs that were performed by everyone from Roy Orbison to Chet Baker, and composed for a TV series, among a host of other far-flung efforts.
The several hundred songs he has composed over the years have been literate, informed pieces spanning the range of pop music. Recently he took to writing string quartet music in collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, and the resulting The Juliet Letters is a brilliant, emotion-laden jewel. On a spare weekend he cranked out an entire album's worth of songs for singer Wendy James.
Particularly with his old band the Attractions — with which he reunited for his current tour — Costello has always pushed things onstage, at times going beyond the brink of musical mayhem, at other times assaying ballads with a disarming tenderness. Familiar songs would be recast with new arrangements, new songs would be introduced, obscure R&B songs or Merseybeat chestnuts would appear. On his memorable five-night L.A. stand on his 1986 tour, Costello appeared with a different band or format each night, and excelled in each.
There were no such overt challenges in his performance Saturday. Rather, the set was nearly a greatest hits assemblage of tunes from the mid-'80s and before, and selections from the current Brutal Youth album, which is in large part a return to the form of his early '80s work.
One might call that treading water, were not he and his band instead walking on it, with, retro or not, some of the most inventive, passionately performed music likely to come this way any time soon.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Costello this time out is just that of him getting along with his band. After their split in 1986, bassist Bruce Thomas wrote a book which, while ostensibly fiction, took a number of obvious potshots at Costello, who responded in kind in interviews.
The onstage sparks produced by Costello and the Attractions — Thomas, unrelated drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard demon Steve Nieve — often seemed to be the result of friction between their strong musical personalities. It's not surprising that Costello eventually went looking for musicians who wouldn't ride so roughshod over his songs, and equally unsurprising that he came to miss their untamable excellence.
Saturday, the four of them got right down to business, bashing out the early tunes "No Action," "High Fidelity" and "The Beat," and plowing seamlessly into Brutal Youth's opening track, "Pony St." They barely came up for air in the 30-song, three-encore set, charging from song to song with Costello scarcely getting a word in edgewise.
It took the fifth song, "Beyond Belief" from 1982's The Imperial Bedroom, to drive home what a remarkably rare musical outfit Costello and crew are. It has always been one of their most volatile mixtures of song-crafting and musical abandon, but this time out the four treated the song like it was a berserk drunk they were trying to wrestle to the ground.
Drummer Thomas charged the beat; bassist Thomas eschewed his usual melodicism and swung with a vengeance; Nieve caromed between his keyboards — both hi-tech stuff and a cheesy '60s organ — with more than his usual sanity-threatening mix of the baroque and the surreal; and Costello poured his lungs and spluttery guitar into it. Welcome back, boys.
The set was heavy with popular favorites, including "Accidents Will Happen," "Watching the Detectives," "Alison," "Radio Radio," a burning show-closer in "Pump It Up" and a rearranged, pop-rock version of the 1983 hit "Everyday I Write the Book."
Even amid such proven company, the new songs shone, particularly "Clown Strike," "Sulky Girl," the warm, Kinks-like "London's Brilliant Parade" and "My Science Fiction Twin," a song made somewhat more pertinent by the presence of an Elvis look-alike, dressed just like him, in the audience.
Other standouts in the show included 1982's "A Man Out of Time" and 1989's "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," on which Costello took vocal chances that were too rare in the evening's other songs.
His voice may be an acquired taste, but, when it comes to phrasing, he's practically the Sinatra of rock, with a great command of inflection and shading. On most past tours, he would probe each song, making changes both subtle and shouted, and sometimes reinventing a melody on the spot. In this ballad-shy show, though, he often seemed to forgo the finesse, making the performance neither quite as intimate nor as grand as it might have been. Yet, even falling short of his peak, Costello scaled heights few other acts even attempt.
Opening act Crash Test Dummies might be cute in a coffeehouse, but the Canadian outfit was out of its depth on a concert stage. The catchy novelty of their Top 5 hit "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" is about as good as they get, and they pretty well flubbed that live, with off-key harmonies and no presence.
Even the traditional gospel blues tune "Samson and Delilah" — a song in which the "If I had my way, I'd tear this building down" refrain once held great significance for Southern blacks — was tossed off like a B-52s party favor.
Front-man Brad Roberts may have been born with his bass-frog of a voice, but his unaspiring delivery and self-satisfied attitude made it seem like a gimmicky affectation.