Elvis Costello was the gregarious dinner host who wouldn't let you go home at the Tower Theater on Friday night.
Accompanied only by Attractions pianist Steve Nieve, the ecumenical British singer-songwriter went on and on and on. He performed for nearly three hours before a raucous, devoted crowd, repeatedly returning for encores that included crowd-pleasers such as "Pump It Up" and an unmiked tour de force finale of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected, No. 4."
There were a few clunkers, such as Charles Aznavour's stilted "She," and a silly "God's Comic" with spoken digs at Lord of the Dance Michael Flatley and National Rifle Association honcho Charlton Heston. (Tough targets, EC.)
But for the most part, it was a marvelous show. Costello made his name as an angry young man, and ever since he has rigorously explored every musical avenue you might not have expected him to, from country to classical to Painted From Memory, last year's collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
The word on Costello has traditionally been super-prolific mediocre-voiced brilliant wordsmith fixated on sex and deceit (see "Temptation," "Motel Matches," "Watching the Detectives" and so on from Friday's show). But at the Tower, it was as a vocalist that the native Liverpudlian shone.
He sang astonishingly well, free of the choked, mannered improvisations that once marred his live shows. Instead, ably supported by the virtuosic if hammy Nieve, Costello enunciated with venom on "I Want You," delivered a gorgeously understated "Baby Plays Around," and passionately put across the at-times turgid Painted From Memory.
It was a manic, bravura performance, almost long enough for Costello to play all the music he hears in his head.