You're nobody in this town, 'til everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard," sings Elvis Costello on his 1989 LP Spike. Strangely enough, it's Just that Image, the one of the brooding, snotty rock upstart, that Costello seems to be moving further and further away from.
Playing to a surprisingly small but unfailingly responsive A.J. Palumbo Center crowd Saturday night, Costello and his six-piece band the Rude 5 took bright pop experimentalism to dizzying heights. The group switched effortlessly from popabilly gems like "Lovable" to achingly angry rockers like "I Hope You're Happy Now" to such vocal jazz fare as "Poisoned Rose" and sounded adept and impassioned in every genre.
It's no wonder Costello has recently collaborated on a number of songs with another pretty impressive popster named Paul McCartney. Few acts since the Beatles have dared to make as many different and, more importantly, viable, stylistic changes in the interest of artistic growth. Costello is the exceptional artist of the 1980s who's picked up that important mantle.
For the Beatles, though, the touring stopped just as their musical vocabulary broadened. With Costello, his ever-expanding vision of the rock genre is not only showing itself on vinyl, but is also being felt in his live performances.
Perhaps the most interesting element of his recent shows has been his willingness to tamper with the arrangements of his long-standing classics. With the Rude 5's lineup expanding beyond the traditional four-piece rock lineup to include accordion, mandolin, E-flat horn, tuba and additional percussion, Costello seemed able to stretch out in any direction.
The Rude 5 brought out the darker elements of "Clubland" and "Watching The Detectives," led by guitarist Mark Ribot's dissonant riffing. They also cast appropriate gloom onto the extended Blood And Chocolate piece on obsessive love, "I Want You." Backing off when they needed to, the band allowed Costello's throaty, commanding voice to take center stage and move the song into its downward spiral.
Costello's voice dominated the proceedings throughout the night. Sounding relaxed yet purposeful, the singer milked every bit of emotion from his lyrically rich songs like "Brilliant Mistake" and "Deep, Dark Truthful Mirror."
Costello also played a brief reprise of the acoustic performance he did in Pittsburgh in April. Midway through the set the band went backstage while Costello segued his own song "Radio Sweetheart" into Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" and debuted an as-yet-unrecorded McCartney collaboration called "It's So Like Candy." The abbreviated solo set demonstrated just how strong Costello's songs prove with or without extended accompaniment.
Finally, Costello's ever-more-amiable outlook served his music well. Works like "Man Out Of Time" and the career-making "Alison" practically shimmered in their stately beauty. The audience seemed more in tune with the show, too, spontaneously joining in on the final choruses of "Let Him Dangle" and rushing the stage to dance by the end of the regulation set.
Taking more and more steps away from music's mainstream, Elvis Costello has almost humbly donned the crown of the Artist. It's a hat the "King Of America" should wear proudly.