WORCESTER — Elvis Costello had every reason not to put on a good show.
His latest US tour to promote a, for him, poor album (Goodbye Cruel World), followed a critically successful solo acoustic tour. Historically, Elvis has followed up good tours with fair ones, like the over-produced, glitzy Punch the Clock shows last summer.
But expect the unexpected from Elvis. His August 21 show at the Centrum was one of the strongest, most emotional shows he's done in New England.
After a solid country-pop set by Nick Lowe and his Cowboy Outfit, Elvis started slowly but worked the close-to-sold-out audience like the master he's quickly becoming.
Never the greatest live (remember the 40 minute sets in the 70s?), Elvis actually talked to the crowd, encouraged dancing, and characteristically took shots at music far below his level ("We're going to play a Motley Crue tune for you now.").
Backed by the Attractions, Elvis unleashed his old standards with some fire ("Green Shirt," "Pump it Up," "Girls Talk," "Watching the Detectives," and "Getting Mighty Crowded") and made his new stuff ("Inch by Inch," and "Only Flame in Town") shine.
A cover of the Byrds "So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star?" and his namesake's "His Latest Flame," as well as a pair of as yet unrecorded songs, "Young Boy Blues" and "I hope You're Happy Now," may have befuddled some of his new MTV fans, but these songs pleased the people who picked up My Aim is True when it was released.
Gone from his show are the overpowering TKO horns and saxophonist Gary Barnacle is present only for a few songs. The Attractions, especially the omnipresent Steve Nieve (who is going by the moniker of Maurice Worm these days) on keyboards, backed Elvis' gasping rhythm guitar nicely. The Thomas Brothers, bassist Bruce and drummer Pete, were as usual right on target.
His arrangements, or rearrangements, of his old songs enhanced the original versions. Nieve's pop-organ-piano swipes, Elvis' sharp wordplay and even a good joke ("So they finally closed down the Cape Cod Coliseum, what good news") made this as David Letterman would say, "A fine, fine concert."
A solo encore and an eight song final encore, including a spirited "Getting Mighty Crowded" and of course his lash at Top 40 radio, "Radio, Radio," ended the show on a high note.
Elvis writes his songs motivated by revenge, guilt, and sometimes a bitter love, but he belts out a song with a little more emotion now. The "angry young man" still burns inside, but even people with a message can be human. The pop medium has never been put to a better use.