The spare accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar and a piano made Elvis Costello sing harder. The harder he sang, the more the stark power of his songs rang out.
Appearing at the Fillmore Auditorium on Wednesday, Costello unveiled most of his new album, All This Useless Beauty, sprinkling in a handful of choice selections from his extensive back catalog, in a more than two-hour performance that was spectacular in its sweep and impact.
Costello followed his Fillmore appearance with a late show at the Sweetwater, the charming 100-seat Mill Valley club where he joined Harry Dean Stanton for a few songs last week. Costello and the Attractions will return to the Bay Area in August to play the Greek Theater.
"It's hard to get into songs you don't know from the 97th row," Costello told the crowd at the Fillmore, which holds about 1,100 people.
He put extraordinary passion and intensity into his vocal performances, often standing at the microphone while backed on piano by Steve Nieve from the Attractions. He burnished the edges of a torch version of "Temptation" with flawless vibrato. He punched home the big finish to "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?" with a rising, wrenching, reaching blast that would have done a saloon singer like Sinatra proud.
Flashing self-effacing humor and gleefully at ease in the acoustic presentation, Costello benefited from the minimalist approach to the rock songs on All This Useless Beauty. Rid of bombast, the songs stood out like raw gems. Over the past 20 years, Costello has evolved from a wordy, angry smart-mouth into one of the most penetrating and trenchant writers in pop.
Costello tells the secrets of the heart, the unspeakable thoughts from the dark corners of the mind. His musings on lasting love in "The Long Honeymoon" paint an achingly beautiful portrait without ever dipping into saccharine sentimentality or maudlin remonstrations. His whimsical view of the afterlife, "God's Comic," somehow manages to combine the mordant with the cheerful. "It's Time," a rock song from the new album that he transformed into a classic soul ballad in his acoustic performance, masterfully plumbs irony and self-doubt within the confines of a conventional breakup song.
He played more than a half- hour of encores, throwing together medleys that combined "Allison" from his first album, Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" and the final chorus from his own "Clowntime Is Over." His elegiac version of the Grateful Dead's "Ship of Fools," sung in response to a shouted request from the audience, gained extra resonance at the Fillmore, where the Dead started so many years ago. He returned for second encore with "Watching the Detectives."
At the Sweetwater, he played another 90 minutes, mixing songs from the new album with even more pages from his songbook — "Oliver's Army," "Almost Blue," Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" — into the wee morning hours.
Clearly, Costello chose this informal approach to introducing All This Useless Beauty with the confidence that his latest work stands proudly alongside his best. He may be right.