When banners dubbing Elvis Costello "The Beloved Entertainer" unfurled behind him late in his show Saturday night at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, the gesture had an ironic cast.
Costello, after all, has been heralded by the pop intelligentsia as an example of rocker as master craftsman, too taken with his muse to worry about such entertainerlike concerns as easy accessibility. As for being beloved, his work since the 1970s has been marked by knotty word play and musical genre hopping too often to make him beloved by more than a large cult following.
But Costello's Irvine show was the work of artist as entertainer, an impressive, thoughtfully conceived reconciliation of an artist's desire to explore new territory with an entertainer's solicitous regard for fans who might be disoriented by too much exploration all at once.
Costello the explorer has enlisted a new band, the Rude 5 (actually a six-man outfit) to help him pursue the angular, twisting approach to pop that makes up much of his strong new album, Spike. The key new additions are guitarist Marc Ribot and percussionist/accordionist Michael Blair, both previously in Tom Waits' band. Both distinctive stylists, they lent Costello's music an ambient, off-kilter feeling when it was time to go exploring.
But in a savvy job of structuring his two-hour-plus show, Costello punctuated these journeys into pop's twilight zone with regular walks down the Main Street of his career. He never let too many songs elapse before playing a familiar version of a crowd-pleasing favorite, ranging from one of his earliest hits, "Alison" (from his 1977 debut album), to his most recent one, "Veronica" (from Spike).
Moreover, Costello, decked in his usual dark, baggy suit, was an engaging host, happy to lead the audience in sing-alongs and to give them stand-up comedy to boot (albeit a bitingly sarcastic brand of topical comedy that, among many other targets, jabbed at Orange County's conservatism and jibed about Ronald Reagan's water-on-the-brain condition).
Costello opened with what amounted to a warm, friendly hello: a faithful-to-the-original rendition of one of his '70s chestnuts, "Accidents Will Happen." But before long, he was off exploring new possibilities with the Rude 5. They lent a strange, airy jazz discordancy to "Clubland," which had been an all-out rocker during the regime of Costello's longtime backup band, the Attractions. It was not just change for fiddling around's sake: The new disjointed elements fit right in with the song's account of nightclub hell.
"Let Him Dangle," an indictment of capital punishment from Spike, took Costello further into strange, twilight pop: a trombone and tuba oompah (provided by Steve Soles and Jerry Scheff) oozed irony while recalling a New Orleans jazz funeral march; meanwhile, Costello's choked singing and Ribot's wild, thin guitar screeching evoked visions of the tightening noose.
Before things got too strange, Costello was quickly off on a straight-ahead rockabilly romp, "Loveable." Throughout the show, he would return to rockabilly as a reference point, as if to say that no matter how far out one cares to go with rock, it's a mistake to forget for long that its essence is a simple shot of energy set to a back beat.
"God's Comic" may not make Costello beloved among those who do not want to see the Creator depicted as a cosmic joker, but this sarcastic song about a dead comedian's trip to heaven was hellishly entertaining. It featured a snippet of "I'm a Believer" (inserted when the song's protagonist discovers that there is a heaven), a sing-along chorus and Costello's stand-up routine.
Then came a solo acoustic set in which Costello hit the concert's rage-filled emotional peak: "Tramp the Dirt Down," which excoriates Margaret Thatcher so bitterly that the singer's passion verges on ugliness until a sense of sadness tempers the anger.
Once again, Costello built his set with the assurance of a master engineer, surrounding "Tramp the Dirt Down" with lighter, catchy crowd pleasers. A medley of "Radio Sweetheart" and Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" preceded it, and a lively "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" followed it (the latter song, with its refrain, "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused," seemed to serve as a reminder that the degree of bitterness in "Tramp the Dirt Down" can't be sustained for long; it must give way to a sense of irony that allows one to bear up under harsh reality without being consumed by it).
Toward the end of the show, Costello brought it all back home, linking the concert's stylistic strands in satisfying fashion. The sequence started with an overlap of old and new: "Watching the Detectives," one of four songs Costello played from his first album, was recast as a chromatic, jazz-flavored excursion with plenty of strange, new Ribotics. Then came "Pads, Paws and Claws" in which rockabilly and blues collided with Costello's new experimentalism.
The finale, "Pump It Up," was reworked to sound like something out of Bob Dylan's raw-rocking "Highway 61 Revisited" period: The Rude 5 gave it a chunkier beat than the original, along with new blues and rockabilly inflections.
"Pump It Up" was one of the few numbers in which the Rude 5 achieved the blast-force drive of Costello's final U.S. tour with the Attractions, after the 1986 album, Blood and Chocolate (drummer Pete Thomas is the only ex-Attraction still with Costello).
But Costello's new band gives away nothing in musicianship, and it provides him with a much wider palette of sounds and musical styles than the Attractions.
One could quibble that one new song, the groove-oriented "Chewing Gum," did not measure up to Costello's melodic standards, or that Blair's glockenspiel plinking gave "Alison" a bit too much sweetening. But this was a savory show that makes one hungry to see what Costello will come up with next as he makes his way as a pop adventurer — and quite an entertaining one at that.