There is something about New York City that brings out the marathon in Elvis Costello. He's only been living here for the past year, but there have been times in his touring life when it seemed like Britain's greatest modern songwriter was running for mayor — like the night in April, 1979 when, pumping his Armed Forces album, he played three sets in different clubs in three hours; and the five straight, splendid evenings on Broadway in the fall of 1986, in which he flaunted the whole of his gifts and guises at the time (garage R&B terrorist, primal scream balladeer, alt country dandy, walking pop-covers encyclopaedia).
But with this uptown hat trick, Costello — who turns 50 on August 25 — made it official: There is no such thing as overreach. His protean ambitions as a songwriter and fearlessly catholic drive were out on the counter as far back as 1982's Imperial Bedroom and that free country single included with the first pressings of This Year's Model. Now, in middle age, Costello has the legacy and leverage –the widely admired songbook and the critical glory of his collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney and the Charles Mingus Orchestra — to go for broke. Which he did at Lincoln Center, with no expense or tympani spared. What's the point of throwing your own half-century birthday bash if you can't whip out your first full-scale symphony?
The king-size string section and boogie-army brass of the Metropole Orkest, a huge swinging ensemble from the Netherlands supplemented by Costello loyalist Steve Nieve at the piano, allowed the star to leap from the haunted-saloon lieder of "Still" and "Someone Took The Words Away," both from last year's ravishing North, to the humid New Orleans R&B of Dave Bartholomew's "That's How You Got Killed Before." There were exuberant reconsiderations of Costello's Attractions catalogue as well. "Clubland" did not survive the transition from taxi-dance Nuggets to Afro-Cuban carnival stomp. But "Watching The Detectives" was neatly reimagined as vintage TV-cop-show jazz: Benny Carter holding court at 77 Sunset Strip.
It was hard not to hear a little what-if- what Costello might have achieved, in soul and song, with the late Gil Evans — in the stately, complex melancholy of "Put Away Forbidden Playthings" or the Orkest's liquid autumn in "Almost Blue." It was also impossible to miss the matured force of Costello's singing, the fullness of life amplifying his surging distress in the first show's mighty closing prayer, "God Give Me Strength." When Costello lit into that chorus with gale-force anguish, there was barely enough blowing room for the band.
By the second night, Costello was ready to have some fun. That was his plummy disembodied voice commandeering the PA as the house lights went down, urging people to turn off their cell phones and pagers "because you won't be able to hear them anyway". He wasn't kidding. After a fit of free-form guitar clang, Costello led his Imposters — Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher — into a fusillade of hot vengeance from Blood & Chocolate, My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model, but without a shred of nostalgia. In the bullying age of Clear Channel, Costello's searing wish in "Radio, Radio" — "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me / I wanna bite that hand so badly" — sounded even more immediate, and despairing, than it did in 1978.
Costello followed that barrage with a different ferocity: the gravel-road rattle and tangled small-town tensions of his forthcoming album, The Delivery Man, a dirty-South operetta actually recorded with the Importers in Oxford, Mississippi. In crunchy waltz "The Name Of This Thing Is Not Love" and the grunting funk of "Bedlam," Costello lashed at his wide-body Gibson like he'd been taking correspondence guitar lessons from Neil Young and the departed spirit of Junior Kimbrough.
But inside Costello's hairpin turns — from the spectral new Country Darkness to the thrilling apoplexy of "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," in the encore swerve from the lonesome Appalachia of his Cold Mountain ballad "The Scarlet Tide" to the slow hard blues "Love That Burns" — was a striking constancy, a concentrated melodic care and attention to emotional detail at once strong enough to cut through the Imposters' roughhousing, then hang in the air with candid elegance when Costello shut off the electricity, as he did for the exquisite pain of "Indoor Fireworks."
Costello's symphonic debut, Il Sogno (The Dream), was born four years ago as a ballet score, commissioned by the Italian company Aterballeto for an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although Costello has revised the piece for orchestral performance and disc — a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, is due in September — Il Sogno's programmatic origins were evident at Lincoln Center, in the episodic jumps from sunlit violins and skipping cellos to fox-hunting trumpets and elephantine trombones. Melodies and motifs appeared and dissolved with pop-single-like brevity; early in Act Two, the horns, basses and percussion locked into a smart march bearing a loving resemblance to The Drifters' "On Broadway."
I am not qualified to judge Il Sogno as classical music or debate its finer technical points. But I know affection when I hear it, and Il Sogno was a marvellous compound of valentines: to the poetic might of Duke Ellington's great suites, Brian Wilson's pocket symphonies on Pet Sounds and the sumptuous poignance of Nelson Riddle's arrangements for Frank Sinatra. I also noticed something else: regardless of setting or instrumental armoury, Costello always writes with a pop ear for impact.
There were points in Il Sogno — like the summer breeze of harp, vibes and strings in the third movement — when I found myself waiting, in vain, for Costello to pull up to a mic and turn the form into song. That was until the second half of the concert, when he, Nieve and bassist Greg Cohen joined the Brooklyn Philharmonic for a final hour of more compact grandeur: "All This Useless Beauty," the North ballad "Fallen," a breathtaking "Almost Blue" that seemed to sway naked in the dark — just Costello's hurting voice, Cohen's heartbeat bass and Nieve's teardrop piano — until the last titanic rush of strings.
It was a stunning moment, in a night and week rich in them. We were there to celebrate Costello's 50th birthday. But he was the one giving out the presents.