A few days ago, Elvis Costello told the audience Monday night at the Beacon Theater, he turned on his television to discover a documentary on punk. Around the same time, the Sex Pistols, punk's barbarians, played in the States for the first time since the late '70s.
"In the words of the poet, the times they are a-changin'," said Costello, bemused that something as primal as punk should suddenly be considered worthy of a place on the Learning Channel, and perhaps amused that people are willing to pay to see the middle-aged Sex Pistols play music that was never anything but the music of youth.
Besides their common history, Costello shares little else with the Pistols of 1996, whose idea of crafting a new record is to record a live album of the same old snotty stuff. Costello has always sought his kicks far from the profit margin, once almost bankrupting himself with an overambitious tour. His passion is to create music that challenges, that welcomes all but caters to no one.
Nothing expressed that more clearly than the fact that Costello's musings on punk came during an interlude in which he and keyboardist Steve Nieve took the show in a moodier direction, with Costello's acoustic guitar and Nieve's piano providing the sole instrumentation.
As if reinforcing his claim on the present, Costello turned a song from All This Useless Beauty, his latest album, into the highlight of this mini-set. Introducing "Poor Fractured Atlas" as a song about how "we turn boys into men and back again," he sang with a clarity that allowed the painfully honest lyrics about a man's delusions to be heard in every corner of the theater. And while he performed like a man concerned that his message be heard, he was never the lecturer or the preacher.
Nieve, one of rock's most inventive players, forsook the tricky keyboard sounds of earlier songs in the set and played a gentle accompaniment that echoed Bach.
The thrust away from punk's simplistic energy continued when Costello and Nieve (later rejoined by the other two Attractions — Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums) offered up "Veronica," cowritten with Paul McCartney, the high priest of melody. Stripped down to voice, guitar and piano, the song lost the jolly frivolity that marred it on 1989's Spike album. It was reborn as a bittersweet lament.
While the acoustic mini-set — a reminder of Costello's recent unplugged concert at the Supper Club — was perhaps the most challenging part of the show, nothing he did was without what seems to be a post-midlife-crisis energy.
Absent were many of the off-target songs from Spike and Mighty Like a Rose. Playing the new material was his priority, and the band gained a sharpness for songs like "All This Useless Beauty" that was lacking in their rendering of the classic youth anthem "Pump It Up." Not that the hits and oldies weren't done with sincerity, but after probably hundreds of outings, even such perfect pop songs as "Accidents Will Happen" and "Alison" can lose their freshness.
It's a relative rarity, as the Pistols bear witness, that the strength of aging rock musicians is found in recent work rather than in back catalogs. It's Costello's blessing that he still has it in him.