SAN DIEGO — Not so angry, but forever intent, Elvis Costello still has some things to prove.
Perhaps that's why Costello played with such studied, fierce abandon during his concert Monday at Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park. Since his laconic debut album in 1976, Costello has stood as the benchmark for youthful anger laced with sarcasm. Costello was backlashing against the inertia of Generation X well before there was one, a sometimes lone signpost against the establishment on the eve of the inevitable yuppie power rise.
Through all, Costello stood firm. Now entering his 40s, and reunited with the Attractions, the band that helped change popular music from its tedious whine of the '70s to the more tenacious power pop and grunge of the '80s, Costello is still seething.
But as the concert illustrated, Elvis Costello and the Attractions are sharing their catharsis with the music as much as with the message. The members of the band — Elvis, Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve all shared periodic smiles throughout the blistering two-hour set, as if in on a joke only they could understand.
Yet the sheer dynamic of the music illustrated the power of the band's continuing disillusionment. Opening with several songs from This Year's Model and Costello's passionate, clever and personal new album Brutal Youth, Costello and the Attractions elevated the songs through sheer sonic force, always precise.
Costello has long been one of the formidable songwriters of his generation, though sometimes overwordy, and has become even more adept in recent years at crafting a complicated personal message and providing it a lethal mix of extensive chord changes and biting melodic hook. Evidence is "London's Brilliant Parade," a cut from Brutal Youth, which he introduced with the Costello-esque quip: "This song is about a part of my past. I won't tell you which part."
From there, the band bounced from more obscure cuts off early efforts to some of the "hits" that helped rescue radio during the last 15 years. Those included "Less Than Zero," "Watching the Detectives" and "Everyday I Write the Book" as it was originally written, delivered in a stripped-down, bitingly bouncy style. Costello ended with the current single, "13 Steps Lead Down," which segued into a blistering "Radio, Radio," and a somewhat uninspired reading of "Veronica."
The encore produced an acidic "Blood and Chocolate," easing into a snarling "The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes." Continuing with a tender, surprisingly careful and poignant "Alison," the Attractions followed Costello into loud, semi-caustic and note-perfect versions of "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" and "Pump It Up."
The concert was in many ways Costello's answer to worries he had softened after the less-challenging Mighty Like a Rose album, and the subsequent venture into classical music with the Brodsky Quartet. But apparent was the new-found energy Costello brought from those projects, especially the latter. Most of the traditional Costello arrangements were juiced up in concert by classical bridges and sudden tempo changes, not to mention the snarling harmonic dissonance Costello freely experimented with on his originals with the Brodsky Quartet.
But Costello is back where he belongs, and the Attractions, most notably drummer Pete Thomas, haven't lost a step. The ferocity of the music was tangible, eased by the familiarity between the band members and that ever-present sense of comforting humor.
The Crash Test Dummies opened the show with a quiet, inviting set of thoughtful rock-folk. The Canadian band, University of Winnipeg students who perform as a hobby, have a Top 10 single in "Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm," but have two albums of gratifying, strange musical short stories that suggest a lengthy, rewarding career.