"So I'm at Town Hall," Elvis Costello cracked near the start of his performance at the venerable W. 43rd St. auditorium Monday.
"Does that make me the mayor?"
But easy as it was to answer that question, a bigger one remained:
Which Elvis Costello was in the house?
The spiky rocker? The classical buff? The jazz aficionado? Or the Merle Haggard-loving country crooner?
During a generous two-hour set, Costello — who plays Town Hall again tonight — displayed all these sides of his dizzyingly eclectic musical personality.
He did it in ultra-Spartan style, accompanied only by longtime foil Steve Nieve on piano and melodica, occasionally joining in himself on acoustic guitar. And he did it with seemingly effortless command.
Nine of the show's 27 songs came from Costello's new CD, North, a subdued collection of ballads tracing the demise of one relationship and the start of another. According to Costello, it was the first time they'd been played in a full-length concert.
On record, many of the North numbers feel washed out, handicapped by string and horn arrangements that are tasteful to a fault.
But stripped down to just piano and voice, they gained a surprising intensity.
Taking advantage of Town Hall's stellar acoustics, Costello sang in an intimate, conversational fashion, often abandoning his microphone. Nieve tossed off florid trills, broke into jaunty bursts of stride and lingered over pregnant pauses, during which you could hear the crowd breathe.
"Fallen," with its dreamy autumnal melody plumbing the depths of Costello's vocal range, was a particular standout.
Besides the North tracks, Costello and Nieve peppered the set with fan favorites ("Accidents Will Happen," "Man Out of Time"), rarities ("Either Side of the Same Town," written for soul singer Howard Tate) and a tender tribute to Johnny Cash, "I Still Miss Someone."
They also, quietly, made a political point with three songs in a row: "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," "Radio Silence" and the haunting anti-war anthem "Shipbuilding."