Over his enduring career, Elvis Costello has been a genre-jumping pied piper who has led his fans on musical sojourns as diverse as new wave, classical, country and opera.
At the Beacon Theatre on Monday, the first of his two-show engagement, Costello bowed low to old-fashioned New Orleans R&B with Crescent City piano icon Allen Toussaint as his guide and muse. While the hairlines of both men have steadily traveled north, this performance demonstrated that their skills haven't gone south.
For a point of reference to the music, forget about the kind of soul and R&B that's infused into contemporary hip-hop. Instead, travel back to the rolling piano work and earthy vocals of a young Fats Domino singing songs that weren't quite country, blues or rock, but a little of each.
Over the course of the 2½-hour concert, the pair traded licks on their individual hits and the songs they penned together for their recent CD The River in Reverse, inspired by Hurricane Katrina.
These men have very different styles — Costello's tenor is nimble, reaching both highs and lows, but it has an abrasive quality. Toussaint is always smooth, his tones are soulful, and his delivery has an unexpected sincerity and humbleness.
During some of the songs, like Toussaint's "Freedom for the Stallion," the pair complemented one another. And then there were songs where they seemed at odds, as on "Ascension Day," a stripped-down retooling of the bright New Orleans standard "Tipitina" disguised in a solemn minor key.
When Costello laid down one of his own classics, such as the concert opener "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding," or the late show rave "Pump It Up," the crowd matched his performance energy, but it was mostly an easy, relaxed night of music that the audience members enjoyed from their seats.
Still, there was no doubt about whom the crowd was there to hear.
At this show, Costello dominated the fans' attention, strumming and humming center stage. Toussaint's soul and R&B production served as the concert's glue, and he seemed content to be the pianist for Costello's band.
Toussaint did do a bit of lead vocal work, the best of which was on a cover of Paul Simon's "American Tune" and his own "Yes We Can Can," which was made popular by the Pointer Sisters back in the '70s.
The Costello songs that fared best with this old-school soul treatment were the midset rendering of "Poison Rose" and the encore song, "Alison." Each demonstrated how a stylistic shift can make you hear a time-tested oldie in a new way.