Remember Deion Sanders? Doesn't matter if you do or don't: He was a Hall of Fame-caliber football player who tried to play major league baseball but couldn't hit the curve ball very well.
See, Elvis Costello can switch from rock mode to crooner to twanger to classical fusionist to whatever else he wants to try, and still hit the tar out of a curve ball.
OK, Costello doesn't look so athletic, and those thick glasses … forget about the curve ball. What I'm trying to say is that the guy seems to be able to flat out do anything he wants, and do it beautifully, as he proved in Tuesday night's concert at Ryman Auditorium.
It's difficult to imagine another artist who could meander around genres the way Costello did and still hold an audience's attention. Even Costello can't do it on records: As with Neil Young, most fans prefer a particular era of Elvis. He joked about this Tuesday, saying some admirers tell him, "I love your albums … especially the early, angry ones."
Until the encore, Costello stayed entirely away from very early, particularly mean-spirited things. He and pianist Steve Nieve began with "45," a track from 2002's When I Was Cruel, then shifted to "Brilliant Mistake," from 1986's King of America album. The latter song, with its wish to "watch this hurtin' feeling disappear like it was common sense" was one of many that owe something to the Nashville country songwriting idiom, a tradition he later honored with covers of the Jerry Chesnut-penned "Good Year for The Roses" and of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone."
But the country trip was not Costello's only journey. The Brodsky Quartet brought a classical bent that helped "Pills and Soup" move from foreboding to positively terrifying and that added layering to the singer's recent, more lovey-dovey excursions from last year's North. And Costello also crooned to great effect on numerous compositions, displaying a vocal possession of more octaves than most men have sport coats.
The Costello of the late 1970s was an invigorating yet essentially graceless presence, an impudent, bile-spewer who delighted through raw aggression. A quarter-century later, his congested post-punk rasp has morphed into something remarkable, with woody, oboelike tones on the low end and a marvelous, tremulous falsetto at the top of the scale. More importantly, he carries an empathy and a fundamental melancholy that make for richness and depth.
It's impossible to believe that he's not a more pleasant person now, much less a more pleasant performer. Yet, as he displayed at show's end, he can still rock like nobody's business. Those who stuck around for the encore heard Costello sing the plaintive, Oscar-nominated "The Scarlet Tide" (a song he and T Bone Burnett wrote for Alison Krauss), then plug in a hollow-body electric guitar and slam through 1978's "Pump It Up." He closed with soul standard "Dark End Of The Street," rendered here as an elegiac sing-along:
"You and me," he sang, away from the microphone, standing at the stage's edge, with his voice ringing through the old hall.
"You and me," the audience answered back.