The second verse of "God's Comic," one of the newer songs that Elvis Costello performed Saturday at the Mann Music Center, finds God surveying the excesses of humanity and wondering whether he should have "given the world to the monkeys."
Aware that "the monkeys" could also be interpreted as a reference to the singing group known as the Monkees, Costello abruptly stopped the slinky soft-shoe tempo when he reached that line, and launched a chirpy, blink-and-it's-over rendition of the Monkees' hit "I'm a Believer."
More than merely a lesson in recombinant rock kitsch or an example of Costello's acidic humor, "I'm a Believer" foreshadowed what was to come. An all-out secular-humanist revival meeting led by Costello as the fire-breathing preacher. With the loose-limbed strains of "God's Comic" padding softly in the background, Costello railed against those who would colorize Jailhouse Rock. He addressed divorce lawyers and TV evangelists, and dispatched the president of Exxon to the site of the Alaskan oil spill to "clean up the mess with your tongue."
For more than two hours, Costello — backed by guitarist Mark Ribot, percussionist Michael Blair, drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Jerry Scheff, keyboardist Larry Knechtel and guitarist Steven Soles performing as the Rude Five Plus One — delivered his musical sermon, dazzling the sellout crowd with his hits, his heart-wrenchers and his wry, leveling insights. In the process, he showed how he has grown from a hyperactive student of rock and roll into a beloved entertainer.
The transformation is nothing short of remarkable. Where on his early albums Costello was concerned with energetic music and couplets that had the sting of an arrow shot at close range, the later work (particularly the current album Spike) surrounds that same song-lyric intensity with thoughtfully finessed arrangements.
He still hits hard — as the opener "Accidents Will Happen" and a solo version of Spike's "Tramp the Dirt Down," his ode to Margaret Thatcher, demonstrated. But now Costello's interest goes beyond raw impact. He's hearing a detailed, even erudite type of music, one that stretches far from the well-defined borders of current rock.
The Spike material, which at times resembles Kurt Weill's dark music-theater settings, adapted well to live performance. Scheff doubled on tuba, Ribot on E-flat horn and Soles on trombone to sketchily re-create the sound of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and "God's Comic." "Pads, Paws and Claws," somewhat timid on record, became a full-blown roadhouse shuffle aided by Blair's whimsical mallet work.
Not surprisingly, it was the early stuff that expanded the most. Scheff embellished the melody to "The Poisoned Rose" with fat, torchy bass lines as though he were working in a jazz club. Ribot contributed brainy tangles of solo guitar to the newly subdued "Clubland," allowing many of his best lines to dissipate in discarded, offhand squiggles. One early hit, "Watching the Detectives," was recast with the percussionistic, lurking dissonance found in Henry Mancini's film scores.