Which Elvis Costello would the singer and songwriter born Declan MacManus ferry to the Hollywood Bowl for the first of a two-night stint with the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
So many to choose from, each another piece of an emotional artist: the alienated idealist of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding"; the desperate obsessive of "Uncomplicated"; the soothsayer of Information Age malaise in "Satellite" or the furious critic in "Walk Us Uptown."
So deep is his catalog that Costello, who just turned 60, could have centered his tight, imaginative Friday set around specific themes — a night of bitterness, or devotion, or remorse — and emerged victorious. He seemed to admit as much in the opening line of his show, which used the full heft of the orchestra for 10 of 11 songs. "Oh, I just don't know where to begin," he sang, a man left speechless in "Accidents Will Happen" by volumes and varieties of ideas.
Headlining a bill that featured an illuminating curtain-raiser from North Carolina-raised singer/songwriter/pianist Ben Folds, Costello dipped into his nearly four decades of work for pieces well-suited for orchestral adaptation.
Unlike lesser "pop artist with strings" Bowl gigs that tend to drape simple songs with unsubstantial, one-size-fits-all backing, each measure during Costello's set was its own tiny epiphany. The so-called Impostor is also an Arranger.
The singer's focus was on hope and love, and great lyrical couplets echoed throughout the Bowl. He presented the mournful "Shipbuilding" with a swirling, percussive vibe adapted, said Costello, from Chet Baker's improvised arrangement of the song. Befitting the confusing state described in his lyrics, of a depressed town pining for jobs through war money, the orchestra performed with tense fluidity.
"It's just a rumour that was spread around town, a telegram or a picture postcard," sang Costello. As conductor Scott Dunn spun woodwinds and brass, Costello resolved to hope: "Soon we'll be shipbuilding."
Dressed like a pimp headed to a funeral — black three piece suit, red fedora — Costello was warm and relaxed, his demeanor befitting the occasion (and far removed from his game-show host persona of his "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" shows). Instead of electric guitar, the artist and orchestra were accompanied by Costello's longtime pianist Steve Nieve and a rhythm section — bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Karriem Riggins — "borrowed," said Costello, from his wife Diana Krall's backing band.
Despite the title, "All This Useless Beauty" made a profound argument for beauty's utility, with Costello focused on fading luster and insecurity: "Our leaders have feasts on the backsides of beasts/ They still think they're the gods of antiquity," he sang as Dunn maneuvered the orchestra through a tangle of string and horn runs. "If something you missed didn't even exist/ It was just an ideal, is it such a surprise?"
For "Almost Blue," one of Costello's most enduring, and brilliant, love songs, the artist filtered dense, complicated emotions through the breath and fingertips of expert dozens, and his work blossomed.
From Hollywood High in 1978 to the Hollywood Bowl 36 years later, Costello has seen a lot of Los Angeles. He acknowledged as much near the end of his set, listing some L.A. joints he's gigged since his rise in late-'70s London as punk rock was erupting. He scrolled through the Whisky A Go Go, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the El Rey and the Wilshire before thanking the Bowl's polite, business-casual crowd.
That Costello and the Phil so vividly transformed two songs from that Attractions-backed Hollywood High set — "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" — serves as a testament to both his expertise as an arranger and the malleability of his work.
Prior to Costello's too-brief time onstage, Folds sat at the Steinway with the force of the Phil behind him. The pianist, best known for his breakout success as founder of the Ben Folds Five (ironically, a trio), is less the critical darling than Costello, but his performance proved the artist has earned his kudos.
Folds' set was dotted with smart, piano-driven songs accurately described by Dunn in his introduction as "quirky." The best, "Jesusland," explored suburban spirituality through lines about a Valhalla called Jesusland. Folds, though a witty lyricist with an ear for catchy but complex melody, has kind of a thin voice, one that succeeded at times by sheer force of will.
Draped with such a vast, velveteen body of sound, though, the bespectacled pianist seemed perfectly placed. His wonderfully vindictive, autobiographical "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," which closed his set, served as a testament. His final couplet? "You will be sorry when I'm big," he sang as the orchestra grew large and loud. "Yes, you will be sorry."
The ovation that followed offered further, well-earned vindication.