An hour into Elvis Costello's Tuesday concert at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, a lone fan finally got the chutzpah to charge the stage. She hurled herself at her bespectacled hero three times; three times security personnel dragged her back. She eventually settled for dancing in the aisle, but her gesture started a tidal wave. Within minutes, audience members swept forward en masse to cut loose in front of the stage.
Smiling wanly, Costello waved them forward as he and his band, the Imposters, ran through a raucous jam of "Dust" from his new album, When I Was Cruel.
"We can all gather together for bodily warmth," he quipped at song's end, referring to the night's creeping chill.
While it's true that the shivering crowd needed all the body heat it could get, Costello's aside was also a sly nod to rock 'n' roll ethos, which can't abide an audience that sits plastered to its seats when it should be on its feet, sweating up a storm.
It's a sentiment that matches the mood of When I Was Cruel, the most raggedly rocking album Costello has released in years, following collaborations with everyone from Burt Bacharach to Anne Sofie von Otter.
After playing a series of stripped-down shows with longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve, Costello's latest tour — which also included a show at the Berkeley Community Theatre on Wednesday night — signals a return to the signature sound that has besotted the singer-songwriter's listeners since My Aim Is True appeared in 1977. It's a fusion of brainy, barbed lyrics and music that manages to be punk-Spartan and pop-sophisticated.
Bundled in a scarf, heavy coat and cap ("I always thought we'd find Santa Claus at the North Pole"), Costello led the Imposters — Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher — through a 100-minute set evenly divided between old favorites and new material. After running through freshly acerbic takes of '70s classics like "Waiting for the End of the World" and "Watching the Detectives," they smoothly segued to the present with the dark wit of "Spooky Girlfriend."
As always, vintage hits drew the greatest response. Whoops and reverent silence alternated during "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes"; a dreamy sing-along erupted for Costello's most beloved standard, the plaintive, world-weary "Alison."
The '80s were well represented Tuesday by tracks such as the electro-acoustic "Brilliant Mistake," a minimalist "Man Out of Time" and the acidic pop homage "I Hope You're Happy Now."
In a testament to the strength of Costello's new album and the Imposters' musicianship, fresher numbers managed to hold their own against nostalgia's pull. With its Theremin sound effects and an exhilarating rock vibe, the single "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" inspired roars. The moody, melodious "When I Was Cruel No. 2" spotlighted Nieve's multi-instrumentalism as he juggled keyboards and samplers; "15 Petals" used digital percussion to add unsettling urgency to a complex love song.
By the time Costello and the Imposters closed their first encore with the anthem "Pump It Up," history had become irrelevant. What mattered, and what made the night flow so easily through more than two decades of material, was Costello's enduring engagement with his audience and his music — whether urging young and aging hipsters alike to dance like loons or finding ways to infuse new emotion into an old lyric.