Elvis Costello always seems to be on trial.
During earlier concert appearances here, the British rock performer was called too combative or too country or too congenial.
This time around, there was grumbling about of Elvis becoming too professional or too accessible. Why, he's even got a hit single: "Everyday I Write the Book."
But once again, the verdict Sunday night at the Universal Amphitheatre was overwhelmingly positive for Costello, who received a vigorous standing ovation at the end of his nearly two-hour set.
As much as any major rock performer since Bob Dylan, Costello refuses to be a pawn in the pop game. The British rock figure, who ends a series of Southern California shows Thursday night at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, changes styles and emphasis so often that he confuses even his most devoted fans. But he rarely betrays his art.
Again like Dylan, Costello makes mistakes in his almost obsessive campaign to keep his music fresh. But the highlights of Sunday's frequently captivating concert reminded us that Costello is one of the few contemporary artists who is adding to rock's legacy rather than simply feeding off it.
Costello, whose lyrics abound with commentary on personal and social concerns, was on the offensive at the amphitheater.
Augmenting his three-piece Attractions band with four horn players and two female backup singers, Costello also employed a light show so flashy that it seemed like high-beam headlights were pointed your way much of the night. He opened with "Let Them All Talk," a spunky expression of "we'll show them."
The extra musicians and bright lighting gave the evening the feel of a '60s soul revue. It was an appropriate gesture considering that the new single is a good-natured salute to the R&B-shaded, early-'60s urban-pop school of songwriting. Costello also reprised an early-70s Motown hit, the Originals' "The Bells" and a taste of the O'Jays' "Backstabbers."
Amid the flash, however, Costello found plenty of time for the intimacy and insight that have made him such an invaluable artist. Working most of the evening with just the Attractions, he reached into every area of his catalogue, except the country phase.
He moved from the youthful innocence and desire of songs like "Mystery Dance" and "Alison" to the more sophisticated reflections like "Kid About It" and "Man Out of Time" from last year's strikingly ambitious Imperial Bedroom collection.
Costello continues to gain urgency and character as a vocalist, establishing an almost chilling intensity in songs like "Clowntime Is Over," a statement of personal rededication, and a disarming tenderness on the socially conscious "Shipbuilding."
During a time when the success of dance-synthesizer records has focused attention on sounds in rock, Costello's show carried a bonus. It reminded us that good songs are at the heart of pop music. More than anyone in rock since Dylan, Costello has kept that heartbeat alive.
Opening for Costello on this tour is Aztec Camera, which features another songwriter of considerable promise: Roddy Frame. He's a 19-year-old Scotsman whose soft-rock songs have a wistful, youthful outlook, but whose imagery and construction exhibit much Squeeze-like maturity and craft. Frame is inexperienced as a performer at this stage. Both his singing and manner seemed hesitant Sunday. With more poise, however, he could emerge as one of the rock's most engaging and important new forces. Aztec Camera headlines tonight at Club Lingerie.