Elvis Costello proved to be a surprisingly affable host for New Year's Eve festivities at the Palladium. Before his concert, one wondered how an artist whose songs tend to be as personal, and as frequently bitter and scathing, as Mr. Costello's would deal with the nostalgia and sentiment that tend to adhere to the occasion, and his solution was rather ingenious.
Mr. Costello played two generous sets, and during the intermission between them, 15 minutes before midnight, he sent his pianist, Steve Nieve, out to play for the audience. Mr. Nieve is a witty, polished keyboard player, one of rock's finest, and he improvised a medley of familiar melodies, beginning with a snatch of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," that served as pretty, unostentatious background music for ushering in the New Year. At midnight, Mr. Costello returned to the stage and began his second set with what must have been the only really appropriate song from his extensive repertoire, "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding."
The rest of the concert found Mr. Costello challenging his audience with a considerable number of new, recorded songs and a substantial set of country-and-western tunes from his recent album Almost Blue, recorded in Nashville. As far as this listener is concerned, the country songs were not a success. Mr. Costello is a perfect singer for his original songs; his voice pushes to its limits to express their shifting, complex moods, and he often makes considerable alterations in a written melody in order to emphasize a certain line or change its emotional import.
But most of the well-known country songs he has chosen to sing were originally recorded by more powerful vocalists and dressed up in brighter, more commercial arrangements. Despite his genuine affinity for them, Mr. Costello can't keep them from sounding alike, and his insistence on taking a number of them at funereal tempos only adds to the feeling of sameness.
The songs Mr. Costello has written for his next album seem to include a number of ballads and sound, at first hearing, like a particularly thoughtful, ruminative collection. Some of them have the harmonic and melodic sophistication of pop standards from the 1930's and 40's. As Mr. Costello matures, he seems more and more intent on becoming a kind of latter-day Jerome Kern, and one suspects he has the talent to bring it off.
But he is more than a brilliant pop songwriter. He is also his own best interpreter, and it was his interpretive abilities that made his New Year's Eve concert really memorable. He rearranged and reinterpreted both familiar favorites and half-forgotten album cuts, and the Attractions, his superb band, invested just about everything they played with crisp, crackling intensity.
Mr. Costello played directly to the audience, rather than at it as he sometimes used to do. He didn't offer predictable versions of his songs, but too many rock concerts are empty Greatest Hits repackages. This one offered unpretentiousness and warmth and searching intelligence, and that made it the best sort of New Year's Eve celebration.