So who was that old coot onstage, anyway?
Kicking off a five-night stint at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, the formerly skinny Elvis Costello looked like he should have been at the gym instead. With a few pounds spread around the middle and a beard scraggly enough to make Grizzly Adams wince, the British singer-songwriter certainly has changed since he first grabbed the pop world by the throat in 1977 as an angry young man with a guitar.
It's no wonder he appears on Deadicated, the recently released all-star compilation of cover versions of Grateful Dead songs. A few more meals and he'll be identical twins with Jerry Garcia.
But looks have never been Costello's selling point. What has always mattered with Costello are the songs that he generally has used to make barbed comments on the modern world's personal and political foibles. And if he's tipping the scales with his bulkier frame, his songs are still lean, mean and right to the scalpel-sharp point.
His two recent albums, Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, contain some of his most intriguing work. Unlike his early days, he no longer has the capacity for surprise, but his newer material is still compelling.
And it was the freshly minted compositions that received most of the attention during the 1 hour, 55-minute, 24-song set. Costello played some predictable old favorites ("Alison," "Pump It Up," "Accidents Will Happen") but the Mighty Like a Rose material formed the bulk of the performance.
As Rose is Costello's most vitriolic album in years and since he was playing with a stripped-down line-up (guitarist Marc Ribot, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Larry Knechtel, bassist Jerry Scheff), the show had the spare intensity of his early days.
While Costello was personable with the sold-out and adoring crowd, he didn't clown around as he did when he played Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre two years ago. Back then, he played well over two hours and included bits and pieces of non-Costello oldies.
This time around, Costello stuck closer to his own songbook and remained hidden behind his sunglasses and beard. If Costello had been starting to tear the walls down between performer and audience, it looks as if he is partially rebuilding them.
The songs that worked best in the intimate confines of the Wiltern Theatre were the ballads, including "So Like Candy" and "Alison," suggesting that perhaps Costello should have made his band even more basic and toured with just piano and guitar.
The material on Mighty Like a Rose is very densely arranged, and trying to duplicate that sound onstage meant that songs sometimes sounded cluttered. Also, a faulty sound mix in the beginning (Ribot's guitar was nearly inaudible, as were the backing vocals) threw songs off-kilter.
With a musical portfolio as large as Costello's — the man has released nearly 20 albums in 14 years — it's always easy to quibble over what he doesn't play onstage. However, paying more than scant attention to his excellent Spike album would have added to the show's strengths.
Female singer Sam Phillips had a wide-eyed, awkward stage persona in her opening half-hour, nine-song set. One of her songs was even called "Tripping Over Gravity." But the sensibility complemented her music, an appealing mix of rock, folk and more ethereal influences. That she had a handful of excellent songs — "Can't Find the Door," "Standing Still" and the aforementioned "Tripping Over Gravity" — made her all the more of a pleasant surprise.