The punk rock era's angriest young man has been making music for grownups for a long time. But it was still a little odd to see him in a tuxedo for his performance Tuesday with the Austin Symphony Orchestra at Bass Concert Hall.
Costello — today much more elfin than ticked off — traded his Fender Jazzmaster electric guitar for a couple of acoustic models and came armed with an arsenal of Burt Bacharach-style, major-seventh chord arrangements.
And there's the rub.
The intimacy of the evening was lovely, but Costello's classical Il Sogno is too often either dreary or clamoring and jarring like so much Henry Mancini over Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Costello's aim, if not quite true, is ambitious, though sorely missing Bacharach's light touch.
And it is exactly that sense of risk that elevated this concert beyond typically half-baked, celebrity-driven symphony pop series shows.
Accompanied, too, by pianist Steve Nieve (whose pea green socks fashion statement looked as if Linda Blair had given them her Exorcist treatment), Costello scored knockouts when on his Gibson J-45 and Martin guitars.
He opened the two-part concert with a harrowing new track from his upcoming project with Allen Toussaint, full of graveyard shift imagery and chorus that goes, "Wake me up with a slap or a kiss."
For the hardcore, he strummed "Veronica" like Buddy Holly and hushed them with "Alison" gone Muzak.
Just as often, he put the guitars down and crooned. Costello's throaty vibrato ushered "All This Useless Beauty" over a lush score. "Watching the Detectives" became a James Bond chase scene.
Throughout, Costello, 51, kept a sense of humor and amazement about him. He introduced the utterly romantic ballad "She" this way: "It's like asking Peter Lorre to play the Cary Grant part."