Elvis Costello insists on making every concert a singular event, every performance a live one. Too often in the age of recordings, musicians try to copy their records or play the same mechanical set night after night. But as he rekindles his own songs and pulls other people's material out of the air, Mr. Costello proves, triumphantly, that every performance can take risks.
Many of his tours since the late 1970's have involved one-time-only programs — playing half a dozen New York clubs in one peripatetic evening, doing a Broadway run with a different show each night — that were not just attention-getting stunts but artistic challenges.
For his current tour, Mr. Costello has been playing solo on college campuses, steering clear of many large cities; tonight he came to the Tilles Center at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University. He seems to think that for student audiences he is already, in his early 30's, an elder statesman. At the Tilles Center, he joked, "Remember punk-rock? Stuff they used to do before you were born?" But the audience remembered "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," released in 1977, well enough to sing the backup vocals without cues.
Mr. Costello has released enough music to qualify as an old hand — 12 full-length albums and various collections, songs in every genre from punk to country to torchy pop. He has written straightforward storytelling songs as well as nonlinear, brilliantly aphoristic ones; love songs, political songs, comic songs and existential polemics, sometimes all in one. His current single, "Veronica," may be the only pop song about senility. Mr. Costello's songwriting is as wide-ranging as that of anyone now working, but he specializes in revealing the complex intersections of power and intimacy.
Most of the set was as stripped-down as a rock performance can be — one singer, one guitar. But Mr. Costello never just strummed straight through a song; each one was volatile and dynamic, riveting. In "Watching the Detectives," he toyed with vocal syncopations and might accompany one line on two strings, the next on six; his voice would leap an octave and then drop to a conspiratorial whisper. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" was a series of crescendoes that made every line tender and agonized. For "God's Comic," a song about a dead comedian who meets God, he did a short comedy routine and followed a line about God's "wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys" with excerpts from Monkees songs.
Mr. Costello came onstage with a smile, and between songs he was droll and genial. But he never undercut his songs; behind the smile was an unsparing eye. In the last part of the two-hour-and-20-minute set, Mr. Costello emerged in a red velveteen jacket, carrying a plastic pitchfork, and began inviting young women onstage to request songs. He performed them cheerfully, including a version of "Pump It Up" newly arranged to a clanking, recorded drumbeat and interspersed with bits of "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story and Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Then, without warning, he made his own choice: "I Want You," a chilling song about pathological jealousy, sung in a voice that sounded like a kidnapper's desperate instructions. Once again, Mr. Costello had sprung an emotional ambush — breaking pop routine with dangerous directness. He wasn't playing punk-rock by any musical definition, but he was still pulling no punches.