Elvis Costello charmed and entertained a sold-out Mondavi Center audience Wednesday night with an animated, wide-ranging, 90-minute solo performance.
Dressed in a gray suit with a wide-brimmed, tan Panama hat, Costello moved easily through songs from across his career, including three from his first album My Aim Is True, two songs from his last studio recording Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, and even debuting three brand new tunes.
An elite songwriter, hugely underrated singer and inveterate musicologist, Costello also understands show business. He's able to give a crowd what it wants without pandering to them.
One of the greatest attributes of Costello's career has been his ability to grow artistically and continually redefine himself while bringing his fans — old and new — along with him. The qualities were evident Wednesday night as his new rootsy sounding songs meshed seamlessly with classics from his extensive catalog.
Opening with "45," an homage to his record collecting youth from 2002's When I Was Cruel, Costello sang powerfully throughout, occasionally finding a sweet falsetto and even whistling a couple of solos. In the spare solo format, Costello broke down a few older songs into simpler more poignant versions than their record versions. On the "Veronica" (written with Paul McCartney) and "Every Day I Write the Book," Costello deconstructed the songs to their basic melodies, allowing the plaintive narratives to come forward. "Brilliant Mistake," one his most revealing and affecting songs, needed little but the straightforward reading Costello gave it. He expertly used the dynamics of Jackson Hall, moving off the microphone and singing out into the auditorium with an unamplified, but easily heard, voice adding a delicate dramatic dimension.
Even though Costello played some of his earliest and still most popular songs, "Watching the Detectives," "Alison" and "The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes," they weren't simply tossed off. The three songs from his 1977 debut album held down strategic moments of the smartly paced show.
"Watching the Detectives" came toward the end of the set bringing some sonic mayhem to the performance. Costello set up the familiar guitar figure then looped it and added some distortion and echo effects as well. He followed that with "Radio Sweetheart," one of his earliest songs, which segued into an audience clap and singalong of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)."
The participation worked so well Costello asked for more on "God's Comic," which has been one his favorite performance pieces for years. The audience happily complied echoing the chorus, "Now I'm dead, now I'm dead, now I'm dead," each time it came up.
He closed with an elegant, understated version of "Alison" before coming back for a four-song encore.
Costello opened his encore with a bluesy "Sulphur to Sugarcane," which he wrote with T Bone Burnett and is the title track from his latest record. He added "The Angels Want To Wear My New Shoes" and another recent song "The Spell You Cast" before finishing with a gorgeous "Man Out of Time."