Early Elvis Costello was, for a lot of people now in their 30s, the very fountainhead of alternative rock — the X on the map where hard, cathartic music met sharp, sardonic insight. Two decades later, remarkably, he's one of the high priests of pop music, embracing the braided traditions of country, rock and soul, along with Tin Pan Alley classicism, as completely as anyone.
And on Wednesday night, there he was on the Ryman Auditorium stage, looking sage and fit and altogether absorbed by the intensity of performance. An overflowing audience, mostly in its 30s, was as transfixed as Costello was on. Many rose after each and every song. With Elvis in hard-rocking form in front of a tight, three-piece band, one could feel leftover teenage demons being dispelled, as well as grown-up appetites being satisfied.
The scene setter was a beautifully pitched and paced set from local-born but now Brooklyn-based Laura Cantrell, a winsome 30-something country singer and songwriter with strong flavors of Kitty Wells and Iris DeMent in her purposeful voice. Backed by a jangly power-pop meets pedal-steel country band, she offered fine songs like Joe Flood's "Pile Of Woe" and her own "Mountain Fern" with unpretentious grace.
Then Elvis entered the building. The sound system played a trumpet fanfare and a goofy yodeled version of the William Tell Overture as the house went dark, but that's where the silliness ended. With a whanging and wiry electric guitar turned up loud, Costello and the quartet charged into the acerbic "I Hope You're Happy Now" from the 1986 album Blood & Chocolate and the "doll revolution" song, "Tear Off Your Own Head," from his new and brilliant When I was Cruel opus. The latter featured soul-shaking keyboard playing from veteran Elvis sideman Steve Nieve, as well as shocking mastery of the Theremin, a vintage electronic instrument that perfectly topped off the driving backbeat.
The song choices and sequencing could hardly have been better. Costello offered 45 from the new album, a good candidate for best-written song of any kind in 2002. He sang the melodious and defeated "Brilliant Mistake" from King of America and the great "Man Out Of Time," which let his commanding voice soar with passionate fervor.
He dipped heavily into country music, a long-time influence, offering "Good Year For The Roses," with songwriter Jerry Chesnut sitting in the front row, as well as "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" and "Sweet Dreams" as a slow waltz. He sang soul, including his own clairvoyant "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror." And he seemed to wind down with a lovely and familiar "Alison," a triumphant "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" (a Nick Lowe song) and an all-out rock 'n' roll celebration with "Pump It Up."
At two the two-hour mark, that would have sent everyone home happy. But Costello added a long, dark coda with the agonizing jealousy song "I Want You," milked for maximum Halloween menace, and the miserably brilliant "Almost Blue." They were both highly effective, but they might have done better in the middle. After being pumped up, it took some of the air out of the tires.