When Elvis Costello played with his old backup band, the Attractions, on Wednesday evening at the Central Park Summerstage, it was less a reunion than a rediscovery.
Mr. Costello, who hasn't toured with the Attractions since 1986, never looks back for nostalgic reasons. For this 39-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist, music from the past, whether his own or others', is a vertical stack of records. He can only put his on top. Mr. Costello's songs rarely fail to acknowledge, in some surreptitious way, the musicians that influenced them. The music is insider's rock made by the ultimate outsider.
On Wednesday, Mr. Costello and the Attractions played a large chunk of songs from their new album, Brutal Youth (Warner Brothers Records). Musically, the songs take such late 1960's British rock bands as the Faces, the Rolling Stones, Love and the Kinks as building blocks; lyrically, they grapple with abusive relationships, miscommunication and the fascism of fashion. Most of them are sung from the point of view of a woman, or at least a woman being watched by Mr. Costello.
In concert, not only did such new songs as "13 Steps Lead Down," "You Tripped at Every Step" and "Kinder Murder" hold up to the band's best work from the late 1970's, but they also dared to be different. The band's scope was broader and its arrangements were more crystalline, mainly because Mr. Costello has recently taught himself how to read and write music, with Brodsky Quartet; and his collaborations with Paul McCartney have helped him add fluidity to his already near-perfect melodies.
The two-hour set was also laced with material from Mr. Costello's first three albums, recently reissued by Rykodisc. In contrast to previous concerts, there were few challenges, flourishes or surprises during the show. Mr. Costello simply muscled through faithful versions of his most popular material, including "Watching the Detectives," "Accidents Will Happen," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," and "Pump It Up." Only "Everyday I Write the Book," retooled into what Mr. Costello called its "original" version, and "Alison," which became a cover version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears," were consciously altered.
With Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums, Mr. Costello seemed at ease. The keyboards, alternating from 1960's organ swirls to anthemic 80's synthesizer lines, punctuated his every adenoidal phrase, as the bass and drums gently prodded from behind. This was not a band built on virtuosity, but on precision and understatement. Solos came quickly, flaring up for five seconds before the instrument dropped back. The band rocked, but never loudly enough to distract from Mr. Costello's lyrics or careful guitar figures.
It came as no surprise when at the end of the concert Mr. Costello announced coldly: "We don't know when we'll see you again. We don't know if we'll ever see you again." This statement was less a grandiose attempt to portray the concert as part of an Elvis Costello and the Attractions farewell tour than a promise that the teaming up was just another step in Mr. Costello's long walk down the path of pop experimentation and personal challenge.