Elvis Costello has taken a few detours in the past decade, indulging his classical taste and crooning with Burt Bacharach.
But the singer demonstrated in an exceptional show Friday at Hard Rock Live that he's still capable of unleashing exuberant rock that resonates with impressive emotional depth.
Dressed in a conservative brown suit that matched his close-cropped haircut, Costello emerged to the "William Tell Overture" and launched into a raucous "I Hope You're Happy Now," from 1986's Blood & Chocolate.
In his late 40s, Costello is no longer an angry young man. Instead, he mines his maturity to uncover engaging nuances in familiar material.
An early masterpiece such as "Alison," unveiled in the third encore of the two-hours-plus show, was delivered with a bittersweet edge that contrasted with the bluntness of the original. Then, Costello artfully segued into a rock-flavored slice of the Jim Reeves' country classic "He'll Have to Go" before making an inspired turn into Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds."
A connection between punk, Nashville and the King seems unlikely, but it illuminates the stylistic range that elevates Costello above the realm of typical rock stars.
Not content to limit himself to slashing guitar riffs, Costello brushed against the blues in the Telecaster solo that opened the rollicking "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," donned an acoustic guitar for a beautifully understated "Man Out of Time" and dabbled in Italian pop on "When I Was Cruel," the title track of his new album.
At several points, the new material dovetailed nicely with older favorites, suggesting that Costello has maintained his creative momentum better than other acts in his demographic. The rumbling drums and loopy organ on the new "45" yielded gracefully to the upbeat syncopation of "Less Than Zero," off the seminal My Aim Is True.
Costello's backing band attacked the harder rocking songs with gusto, especially longtime drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve. Though not featured as prominently, bassist Davey Faragher (Cracker) contributed to an airtight rhythm section.
The guitar-driven sound was balanced by Nieve's well-placed keyboard arpeggios, which rose like a fierce wind gust in "Waiting for the End of the World." He also made judicious use of the theremin, waving his hands at the vintage electronic instrument to create spacey sound effects in "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)."
Unfortunately, it was sometimes hard to hear the vocals in the balcony, though the mix was much better on the floor.
Perhaps because Costello's darkly expressive voice is so captivating, it's easy to forget that he's a formidable guitarist. He proved it with a shower of dissonant notes on "Uncomplicated" and an ominous solo on "When I Was Cruel."
Then he finished with a sprint through classics including "Radio Radio" and "Pump It Up" that shows he can still do that. Even if he is more mature.