Elvis Costello seemed almost apologetic Saturday night at Irvine Meadows going into his delicate "London's Brilliant Parade" after he and the Attractions already had ripped through "No Action" and "The Beat."
The song is a sentimental trip through Costello's hometown as it decays at the end of the 20th century — a far cry from the snarling sexual politics of the other two songs.
"It's a song I never thought I'd write," he confessed.
But we all do things we never thought we'd do. We grow up, sometimes grudgingly. We get married. We sometimes settle for a job we didn't want, sometimes grow fat, sometimes divorce. Sometimes, we outgrow our friends.
It's the latter that's the problem for Costello, who grew up and found himself in the more unlikely position of going from punk-rock shouter to one of the most highly regarded songwriters in rock. So his current tour with his old band, the Attractions, seems like a great idea on paper, but in practice it's not a reunion with a future.
On Saturday night, it felt like one last night out with the boys, a nostalgic weekend blowout before heading back to the real job Monday morning.
Costello clearly had much more emotional attachment to "London's Brilliant Parade" and other material than to the rage-and-guilt fueled angst of "The Beat." And while the show was a fun romp at times — the band grew better as the rainy conditions worsened — it clearly lacked the sophistication and texture for which Costello's post-Attractions work is noted.
That's a surprise, because while the backing band could sledgehammer songs such as "Pump It Up," it was responsible for some of Costello's more complex pieces, "Kid About It" or "Town Cryer" among them.
But on this tour, the band seemed to have only one speed — full-on raging. While that was effective for seminal Costello material such as "You Belong to Me" and "Lipstick Vogue," it tended to make the early part of Costello's set seem indistinguishable — though a large part of the blame can go to a muddled sound mix.
Had Costello been content to have it just be a steamroller nostalgia trip through his early punk days, it would have been a smoother ride. The inclusion of new material and older songs recorded without the Attractions made things a bit bumpy.
The result was an odd mix of classic tracks and new material, playing it safe in a way Costello usually doesn't.
That's not to say it was a bad show. It's just that after years of seeing Costello on the edge taking risks, it was surprising to see him take it cautiously.
Last year, he came out with the Brodsky Quartet to perform his classical songs. The prior Mighty Like a Rose tour was jarring to longtime fans, but Costello still was trying new material. The Spike tour featured perhaps his most versatile backing band — that is, when Costello chose to use it instead of doing solo acoustic versions of songs such as "Red Shoes" and "Radio Sweetheart."
This time out, as promised, he did resurrect a few songs that long had been dropped from his live shows, including "Party Girl" and the opening "No Action." And "Everyday I Write the Book" was presented in its original rock 'n' roll form rather than as the glossy R&B tune it has turned into. The long-lost "Shabby Doll" from the Imperial Bedroom album made a much-welcome return.
And when the concert worked, it really worked. Costello started "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" solo acoustic, with the band crashing in later. It was one of the best-yet treatments of one of his most direct, complex, personal songs.
Songs from the new Brutal Youth album sounded great after losing a bit of the studio gloss, with "Just About Glad" drawing as much wild cheering as "Less Than Zero." "Kinder Murder" was much more immediate without its overdubbed backing vocals.
Much of the rest was enjoyable if predictable, with the band pulling out "Watching the Detectives," "Accidents Will Happen" and other Costello staples.
But at the end of the evening, what you had was Costello up there playing a bunch of songs. In the past, he'd made art.
Opening band Crash Test Dummies gave a warm, funny show that was enough to make you overlook the ongoing, obnoxious overexposure of what is perhaps their weakest song, "MMM MMM MMM MMM." Even that will be easier to take in the future, as lead singer Brad Roberts offered new, obscene words to substitute for the chorus.
Much of the crowd was already in the Dummies' camp before the show began, and strong renditions of "How Does a Duck Know?" and "Superman's Song" made believers of the rest.