It goes without saying — to his devotees, at least — that by now the only people who turn out to see Elvis Costello live are those truly committed to the bespectacled Englishman and his ever-mutating music.
Never mind that his searing, relentless set Saturday at the Wiltern Theatre was precisely the sort of galvanizing introduction any newcomer would be lucky to encounter, even if he would have recognized only a fraction of the tunes. Truth is, much of why Costello's concerts are so tremendous these days is that they are in no way intended for newcomers.
He long ago stopped bothering to convince the young or unconverted; they rarely turn up to see him anyway, not the way they do with Dylan or Springsteen or Prince. Those are legends whose audiences are routinely maxed-out as much by rookies who want to say they saw them once as lifelong followers who stuck it out through good and bad.
Costello's crowds, it seems, comprise only the latter, though they've made room for lapsed fans and lookie-loos during occasional comebacks — 1989's Spike, for instance, or 1994's Brutal Youth.
Rationalize an excuse if it makes you feel better about why your Hall of Fame hero has been unduly neglected since then. The obvious one blames a decade of hit-and- miss experimentation that has seen the esteemed songwriter collaborate with string quartets, opera divas, jazz guitarists and Burt Bacharach.
But that's misguided, and ultimately not facile enough. The plain fact is that the one-of-a-kind Costello, 50, has always been too literate a classicist for the masses, his wildly varied music and dense, acerbic wordplay making him a respected but acquired taste.
Thus, he and his Imposters — two-thirds of the renowned Attractions (drummer Pete Thomas and keys man Steve Nieve) plus bassist Davey Faragher — can stroll onto the Wiltern stage with zero fanfare, proceed to tear through 35 songs in 2½ hours with few pauses for asides or titles and not fear that they've lost anyone in the enthusiastic, well-versed and (this night) star-dotted audience along the way.
That's been Costello's approach on his past few L.A. stops. But this time, toting material from The Delivery Man, his best work since the mid-'80s, the mix was heartier, less dour and more diverse than those recent shows.
Adding to the greatness of the new collection, a rootsy affair cut mostly in Mississippi, is its ability to complement virtually every facet of its author's career. That much he proved right away: a string of Delivery tunes — the ramshackle "Button My Lip," the soulful "Country Darkness," the cyclonic groove of "Bedlam," the eventual bluesy strut of "Needle Time" — made perfect sense coming after a roaring opening of two from 1986's Blood and Chocolate (that album's start and finish, actually), the gem "Possession" and the staple "Radio, Radio."
From there, his selections veered in all directions.
Logically, he dabbled in country, reviving two cuts penned for giants ("Hidden Shame" for Johnny Cash, "Stranger in the House" for George Jones) and tossing in three remakes from his 1981 Nashville detour, Almost Blue. (Curiously, he offered nothing from King of America, the clearest correlative to The Delivery Man.)
He grabbed "In the Darkest Place" back from his Bacharach collaboration. He peppered stretches of obscurities with more famous ones — "Accidents Will Happen, "Clubland" and "Watching the Detectives." Indeed, he played lots from his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, perhaps because session pro John McPhee was on hand to bring pedal steel back to "Blame It on Cain" and expertly re-create lyrical lines in "Alison" few audiences have heard since way back when.
And when Costello appeared ready to conclude his main set with "Pump It Up," he didn't let up, barreling into a cover of "Mystery Train," resurrecting his own chaotic "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" and two by pal Nick Lowe — "Heart of the City" and the immortal "(What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding") — before tumbling into a jaw-dropping take on the riveting "I Want You," his face illuminated by a footlight.
One more, his Oscar-nominated "The Scarlet Tide," to finish it off. Then goodnight and no encore. But no complaints. Newbies won't understand, but the true believers knew they had seen one of the best Costello shows in years.