Next to the intricate, oblique emotion of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," performed passionately at the piano, the primordial punkish angst of "Pump It Up" sounded almost callow. Elvis Costello still burns with intensity, but he has also matured.
Like a later-era Woody Allen movie, the ones without the jokes, Costello's concert Friday at UC Berkeley's Greek Theater simmered with thoughtful, exquisite work, the kind of experienced, intelligent music that shows rock does not belong only to the young and impetuous.
Ever the iconoclast, Costello and his Rude 5 — actually a quartet — careened through a nearly two-hour program that concentrated on his recent work to the point of including a handful of songs so new they haven't been recorded yet. One of the evening's most obvious highlights, in fact, was a powerfully sung, poignant country weeper, "Dirt in My Face," that nobody in the crowd had heard before.
Wearing owl-eyed dark glasses and sporting long hair and a thick beard that gave him the appearance of a rabbinical student, Costello sauntered onto stage in red boots and launched "Accidents Will Happen," slowing the tempo so the lyrics sank even more deeply into the music. He then turned from that trademark number into a countrified shuffle, "But You Don't Know Me," another new addition to his repertoire.
While he paid the requisite attention due his newest recording, Mighty Like a Rose, performing almost half the album's songs, Costello kept tossing in the odd surprise, if only to keep his audience off-balance. The biting cynicism of the Mose Allison put-down, "Everybody's Crying Mercy (And They Don't Know the Meaning of the Word)," suited Costello with its mincing-no-words lyrics and potent attitude.
His own "How to Be Stupid," allegedly his response to a tell-all book by ex-Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, on the other hand, bubbled with vaguely veiled invective and pointed barbs beneath a slight veneer of indifference, a masterful balance of anger and nonchalance given a perfect reading with his churlish vocal style.
The band included his longtime associate, drummer Pete Thomas; veteran bassist Jerry Scheff, who used to back another singer named Elvis; keyboardist Larry Knechtel, another session vet who not only belonged to '70s popsters Bread but also played on a lot of Phil Spector sessions; and avant-gardist Marc Ribot on guitar, who could make his instrument snarl and bite or laze around euphoniously.
The ensemble weaved whatever he wanted behind his songs: the crunching, apocalyptic rock of "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" or the ironically sweet, melodic pop of "Veronica"; a Booker T. and the MGs-style arrangement of "Temptation," a song from his 1980 Get Happy!! album; or the rockabilly jaunt of "Hidden Charms," another previously unheard song.
Costello, who apologized unnecessarily for his voice, put tremendous passion into his performance, illuminating often obscure lyrical passages with clear-cut feeling. He does not talk down to anybody and engages in a lot of cunning wordplay, but more often than not Friday, his main point was getting the message of the songs across.
It is all too easy to write off the wiseacre Costello as a jaded cynic, a bitter smarty-pants with a chip on the shoulder. But wrenching a song like "Broken," written by his wife Cait O'Riordan, out of his inner recesses is an act of an unrepentant romantic, someone for whom the promise of life is still blooming.
The Woody Allen analogy is not so far-fetched. Like the filmmaker, Costello almost consciously avoids sculpting his work for the mainstream but has developed a following large enough to sell out a pair of Greek Theater concerts last weekend and keep his sometimes brilliant work prominently before the public ear.
He follows a distinctly personal vision, a path he has trod since first emerging on the scene as one of new wave's most articulate angry young punks; it his own singular talent and devotion to self-expression that have kept him evolving. Growing older is inevitable, but maturing is a different matter.