Near the end of his concert on Saturday evening at Madison Square Garden, Elvis Costello did something that would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago: He blew kisses at the audience. While the gesture did not mean that the English singer and songwriter had turned cuddly-warm, it was one of many indications that Mr. Costello, who began his career 14 years ago as the thinking person's punk-rocker, has mellowed into a more approachable performer than the sneering misanthrope of the late 1970's.
Bearded and looking almost portly, with shoulder-length hair and sunglasses, Mr. Costello, with his four-man band, made music that, in sharp contrast with the stringy, nervous post-punk sound of earlier Costello concerts, sounded richly fleshed out and at moments almost operatic. The band, which consisted of Marc Ribot on guitar, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Jerry Scheff on bass and Pete Thomas on drums, dressed Mr. Costello's songs in big, chunky arrangements in which the squalid personal dramas of his lyrics were underlined by emphatically flowery pianistic flourishes. At the same time, Mr. Ribot brought a countryish twang to the songs. From a rigid post-punk march, the show's closing number, "Oliver's Army," was turned into a high-voltage folk-rocker somewhat in the manner of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Mr. Costello's singing has changed as much as his appearance. In the old days, he flaunted a clenched adenoidal intonation as a badge of his alienated punk-rock sensibility. While the voice he projected on Saturday was far from warm, it was fuller and more directly emotional. But his attempt to transcend his vocal limitations also called attention to them. Even at its fullest and most expansive, his singing has too many raw edges to show off the melodic refinement of his tricky, angular songs to maximum effect.
Although Mr. Costello has always been thought of as a rocker, three-quarters of the selections he performed on Saturday were mid-tempo ballads. They ranged from slowed-down versions of vintage numbers like "Accidents Will Happen" and "Alison," to "Veronica," his hit collaboration with Paul McCartney, to songs like "So Like Candy," "Harpies Bizarre" and "The Other Side of Summer," from his newest album, Mighty Like a Rose. The evening's high point was "God's Comic," a brilliant, cynical ballad about a comedian who dies and discovers that God looks like Ted Turner. At least, that is the way Mr. Costello introduced the song on Saturday.
There was a time when Mr. Costello, along with many other post-punk rockers, seemed to represent the antithesis of the Beatles' utopianism. Now he is collaborating with Mr. McCartney and blowing kisses. If Mr. Costello's world view is still forbiddingly gloomy, his music was expanded into something much larger than post-punk minimalism. As dark as it is, his vision of the serious popular song still springs from the rock songwriting tradition that the Beatles brought to flower in the late 1960's.
Correction: June 25, 1991: A music review yesterday about a rock concert by Elvis Costello at Madison Square Garden on Saturday evening misidentified the show's closing number. It was "Pump It Up," not "Oliver's Army."