BERKELEY — Declan MacManus, a.k.a. Elvis Costello, isn't the most optimistic of rock artists. The singer/songwriter's first set of encores Friday night at the Greek Theater included a mournful, beautiful commentary on the Falklands War ("Shipbuilding"), the deeply cynical "Peace in Our Time" and a solo number with the refrain: "There's nothing at the end of the rainbow / There's nothing to grow up for anymore."
But he and his band, the Attractions, do these and other songs with such style and vigor that the result is passionate, even enjoyable, pop rock. Exploring jazz, country, soul and folk music, Costello has been one of rock's most ambitious performers. Last year, his ambition got him into trouble, however, as the extra singers and horn section that had accompanied him and the Attractions muddied the sound and dulled its edge.
But Friday night it was just Elvis and the Attractions (along with guest sax player Gary Barnacle) who let loose with a two-hour blast of his vehement pop for the sold-out house of 9,000. Once again, the Attractions — bassist Bruce Thomas, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard player Steve Naive — had no trouble filling up the sound. In fact, at some points one might have wished they didn't fill it up quite so much.
Such complaints aside, Bruce Thomas's bass work recalled both Paul McCartney's and Motown's James Jamerson's, as he continually added rhythmic and melodic counterpoints that, next to Costello's vocals, dominated the songs.
Pete Thomas's crisp, versatile playing moved easily from the light jazz shuffle of "The Only Flame in Town" and the taut dub style of "Watching the Detectives" to the pedal-to-the-metal rock of "You Belong to Me," "Mystery Dance" and the rave-up finale, "Pump It Up."
All along, Naive's keyboards added the embellishments, sometimes on a rich piano, but more often on thin-sounding electronic keyboards that were disappointing.
Costello himself was much improved over last year, when he shrieked through many of his best songs. Though he drew liberally from his latest LP, Costello also found time for blistering takes on "Beyond Belief" and "Lipstick Vogue," a fine version of the heart-rending "Alison" and covers such as the Byrds' "So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star," James Brown's "I Feel Good" and Van McCoy's "Getting Mighty Crowded."
The Attractions were given a run for their money by the opening act, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, whose no-frills, rip-roaring rock 'n' roll was exceptionally well played.
Lowe, for several years Costello's producer and a well-loved cult figure, led his band through a 45-minute set of newer material such as his hilarious "Half a Boy and Half a Man," as well as older favorites such as "Marie Provost," "I Knew the Bride" and "Heart of the City."
Playing keyboards for Lowe was Paul Carrack, whose lead vocals on "Tempted" and his "How Long" were highlights of the set.