Elvis Costello isn't for everybody, which has no doubt been a point of frustration for him, his record company and his fans for more than a decade.
Since the English singer-songwriter's arrival in the late '70s, he has been quite possibly the most consistently stimulating figure in rock even though he has probably sold fewer records in the last 10 years in this country than Vanilla Ice or M.C. Hammer each sold last year. Even Prince seems timid at times by contrast.
Frequently cramming his albums and songs with so many competing ideas and images that you feel the need for Cliff's Notes to get through them, Costello has been equally challenging on stage, where he defies almost all the reigning rules about how best to keep the customer satisfied.
Instead of taking the easy way out by making each concert a celebration of oldies — with any new material toned down to make sure no one misses the words the first time around, Costello follows his own instincts.
And those instincts have rarely been more invigorating than in a blistering two-hour performance Sunday night at the Wiltern Theatre, the start of a sold-out, five night engagement that also features singer-songwriter Sam Phillips.
Sporting a scraggly beard and ponytail, Costello — who may have felt the need finally for a dramatic break from his early, acclaimed material — seemed like a man reborn musically.
As if challenging the audience to move forward with him, he concentrated on songs from his just-out Mighty Like A Rose album and instead of making the songs more accessible for a first-time listener, he and the four-piece Rude 5 band pumped things up with a fury reminiscent of his early Armed Forces album.
And there was no reprise for the audience when Costello broke from the Rose tunes. He did serve up a few of his own early gems, including "Alison" and "Red Shoes," but he spent equal time on mostly obscure songs from his own catalogue or little known blues or rockabilly tunes, including Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo."
If there was a message beyond a reminder that the man who had been called too cerebral (who hasn't heard the "Cole Porter of rock" tag by now?) is also an impassioned rocker, it's that rock in this age of video manipulation and technological wonder can still serve as an absorbing means of expression.
Though the tour is just beginning, Costello's current band — Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Jerry Scheff on guitar, Pete Thomas on drums and Marc Ribot on guitar — seems to be coming together on stage nicely, able to provide both power and character that are equal parts of this extraordinary artist's work.
Befitting a man who, at 36, is still saddled with the "angry young man" tag that was applied to him in the late '70s, there is still considerable fury and bite in Costello's music.
"The Other Side of Summer," for instance, is a rejoinder to all the cheery songs of summer celebration and innocence — a slap of realism capsulized in the opening lines: "The sun struggles up another beautiful day / And I felt glad in my own suspicious way... There's malice and there's magic in every season."
But the heart of the album and Sunday's show rests in the gentler songs, especially "So Like Candy" and "Playboy to a Man," both co-written by Paul McCartney, and "Couldn't Call It Unexpected." In fact, it has always been the compassion in Costello's work that has made the fury matter.