Elvis Costello and the Attractions, who opened a three-night run at the Palladium on Saturday, are a spectacular rock-and-roll band. On records, Mr. Costello's virtuosic and prolific songwriting and his dramatically expressive singing have tended to overshadow the contributions of the Attractions, and records have been the only way for most Americans to get to know them in the two years since they last toured the United States. But at the Palladium, Mr. Costello, the pianist Steve Nieve, the bassist Bruce Thomas and the drummer Pete Thomas were particularly impressive as a unit. The sound they have forged together has become so closely identified with Mr. Costello's songs and his singing that it's difficult to imagine one without the other.
The sound of the Attractions is built around Steve Nieve's keyboards. Mr. Nieve is a a tall, gangly bundle of energy who likes to play standing up, balanced precariously on the heels of his tennis shoes. He weaves bits and pieces of classical piano literature, cheesy organ riffs from the garage-band rock of the early and middle 1960's and swatches of bright chordal coloring into what is essentially a rhythmic, almost percussive accompanying style.
Because Mr. Costello is a rhythm guitarist, Bruce Thomas's bass is free to function as a lead instrument, and from time to time Mr. Thomas steps out to play a lyrical fill. But he exercises discretion, and so does Pete Thomas, a clean, crisp drummer, who's alert but never overbearing.
When the guitarist Martin Belmont and, briefly, the guitarist and vocalist Glenn Tillbrook were added to the quartet, they simply filled out the sound. Mr. Costello took the evening's only guitar solo, and it was brief and to the point. The focus was on his songs, and there were plenty of them, more than 20 in a set that lasted a little more than an hour. They ranged from early songs like "Alison" and "Radio, Radio," which have become rock standards through frequent radio exposure, to several of the more striking songs from Mr. Costello's new album. There was even a captivating cover version of "She's Got You," the Patsy Cline country hit.
When Mr. Costello was touring this country two years ago, some critics and fans found him remote and arrogant. At the Palladium he was neither. He didn't say much, but he did manage to crack a few feeble jokes, and he was visibly energized by the crowd's exuberant response to his newer numbers. Mostly, though, he concentrated on presenting a tight, well-balanced set, and his attention to detail paid off. His performances brought into sharp emotional focus "Clowntime Is Over," "New Lace Sleeves" and other songs that have several possible interpretations. And overall, his set had a satisfying shape and remarkable consistency.
There isn't another singer-songwriter today who can match Mr. Costello's range, depth, richness of language or sheer productivity. His records can be wonderful, but he's at his best on stage with the Attractions; it can only be hoped that he won't wait two more years to tour this country again.