After the string quartet, after the Paul McCartney episode, Elvis Costello has returned triumphantly to where he began — the pure, hard strains of straight-ahead rock-and-roll.
Reunited with his longtime collaborators the Attractions, Costello stormed into the Shoreline Amphitheatre on Saturday night for the first of two Bay Area shows, and lost no time in setting a high-voltage tone for the event.
Ripping into the explosive opening lines of "No Action," he went on to race through a flurry of five songs without pausing for breath, including just one ("Pony St.") from his current CD, Brutal Youth. The trick was to pick out the new composition from the mix; the fact that it couldn't be done on stylistic grounds was exactly the point.
Costello's return to his long-ago trademarks — a handful of simple, clangorous guitar chords supporting inventive melodies, a driving but flexible beat and lyrics laden with angst and acerbity — was underlined with relentless energy throughout the evening.
Once or twice Costello stopped to say a few short words to the audience, but the main order of business was to rock hard and keep on going. The band barreled through 29 songs in under two hours, taking most of them a notch or two above tempo as if to show that it could be done.
And it can. Buoyed by the Attractions' vibrant, streamlined musicianship, Costello sounded utterly in his element — relaxed, indefatigable, ready to put a new spin on an old song or just to play it straight. There wasn't a trace of archness or artiness in sight.
Steve Nieve's jangly, pealing keyboard runs gave the music a jittery charge (he plays as if the keys were electrified and his fingers would get a shock if they lingered). Drummer Pete Thomas provided a seemingly inexhaustible source of adrenaline, and bassist Bruce Thomas kept up a steady, often intricately varied undercurrent.
In fact, between the familiar cast of the new material (nearly every song on Brutal Youth bears a family resemblance to some earlier Costello opus) and the unflagging punch of the performance, a listener might have been deceived into thinking that the 1980s were back. Even the old visual cues were back in place — the owlish horn-rims, the dark blue suit, the splayed, knock-kneed stance before the microphone (though that last surfaced only intermittently).
Most of the songs from the new release put in an appearance (the backbeat-driven "20% Amnesia" was the cruelest omission), sharing time with favorites from Costello's illustrious past.
Not just any oldies, either — the set was heavily weighted with songs from his first two albums, including more than half of the perennial This Year's Model. There was nothing from King of America or Blood & Chocolate, nothing (alas) from Trust, and almost nothing from Imperial Bedroom. After all, if you're going to re-excavate your roots, why go halfway? (The band did perform "Veronica," though, as a reminder that not every song in Costello's vast catalog is worth tuppence, and that the ones that aren't probably have a better chance at breaking into the Top 10.)
The connections were drawn at every opportunity. "Just About Glad," the new disc's most uncomplicated rocker, was sandwiched in between "You Belong to Me" and "Mystery Dance." "13 Steps Lead Down" segued into its musical model, "Radio, Radio." The smooth chords of "All the Rage" bristled with vintage angry-young-man corrosiveness.
The effect, like that of Brutal Youth itself, was at once reassuring and weirdly nostalgic. In the wake of Costello's intriguing but not always successful recent adventures — chiefly the tuneful, treacly co-creations with McCartney that showed up on the Spike CD, and The Juliet Letters, last year's unusual project with the Brodsky String Quartet — the point that his rock instincts remain as sharp as ever is well taken.
But it's also strange to see rock's most imaginative songsmith rifling his own back pages. Costello has always been something of an archivist, drawing on even the most obscure relics of pop music's past. Perhaps it was inevitable that his own early work would show up in the stream.
Pretentiousness was supplied by the opening act, the Canadian outfit Crash Test Dummies. Nothing in the band's set — which included the hit "Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm" and a cutesy-poo cover of the Reverend Gary Davis' "Samson and Delilah" — justified leader Brad Roberts' self-satisfied smirk, or made his meandering vocal growl sound like much more than a misguided Frank Zappa imitation.