Sometimes I amuse myself by imagining what currently popular music my generation will still be listening to as it gets older and grayer. What will still be relevant when, as the Beatles liked to ponder, we're 64?
Most singer-songwriters are lucky to keep the fickle public's attention for more than a few years. Giants of decades past — Paul McCartney, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan — stagnated at various points and began to be viewed as seminal, rather than current.
We're now enjoying a bumper crop of excellent singer-songwriters who have come to prominence recently: Beck, Rufus Wainwright, Tori Amos, Michael Penn, Freedy Johnston. And there are some ongoing cult favorites who continue to draw healthy audiences: Tom Waits, Robyn Hitchcock. But who among them will endure for 20 more years? Who will we be seeing in grand theaters when we're all wearing dentures?
I can only name one for sure. And all of the above musical aspirants should study the career of Elvis Costello, whose brilliant show Thursday night at the Warfield (he plays again Friday at the Paramount) proves his trajectory is still on the incline. Since 1977, when he unleashed his first album, My Aim is True, and the single "Alison" blew our minds with its other-worldly elegance (in a year when AC/DC ruled the airwaves) Costello shows no signs of resting on his laurels.
If anything, he just seems to get more interesting with age — a result of his commitment to experimentation, some of which was acclaimed (his classical work with the Brodsky Quartet) and some of which had critics nonplused (Painted from Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach that was equally loved and hated.)
But even Costello's failures have not hurt him. Now in his mid-40s, Costello still commands the kind of deification given few artists of this age. Probably second only to Bob Dylan, who hasn't done much for us lately.
Perhaps it's because Costello has aged with his audience, and evolved from the angry young man into a master songwriter, an astute observer of the human condition. A guy in love and in turmoil. Maybe we're all tired of the brashness of youth and want insights. Costello serves them up like hot meals.
For two hours and 15 delicious minutes, Costello commanded the sold-out show. With minimalist lighting and just his longtime sidekick keyboard player Steve Nieve to accompany him, Costello turned the Warfield into a muggy cabaret.
He started the evening daringly with a new song, the refrain of which was classic Costello: "I love you just as much / as I hate your guts." In this intimate setting, some songs — played for pop punch on albums — became moody ballads ("Temptation" for example.) Others took on a larger life: "Rocking Horse Road" was an urgent plea, and "All This Useless Beauty" became epic, a chance for Costello to show off his distinctive vocals, which were strong and unfaltering Thursday night.
Costello did several songs from his Bacharach collaboration (always easy to spot as the ones not sounding like 100 percent Costello), and three or four new songs.
Among his older works, "Shabby Doll" and "Indoor Fireworks" were haunting and angry, and "(Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" was the closest thing to rocking, with Costello doing some fancy picking on his acoustic guitar.
He teased the audience by segueing from the rarely heard "Radio Sweetheart" to a snippet of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," which then segued into a lovely, languid "Alison."
He also saved energy for his three encore sets. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" was a witty showstopper, as was "Watching the Detectives," although the combination of Costello's searing electric guitar and Nieve's possessed piano-pounding threatened to overwhelm the song.
The hilarious, honky-tonking "God's Comic" closed the second encore set, and the audience demanded he come back for a third, which included "Red Shoes" and the too-drawn-out "God Give Me Strength."
Perhaps the most remarkable moment was when Costello moved away from the microphone during the last song, to sing unamplified. The audience hushed to a whisper, and Costello could be heard throughout the room perfectly. Relishing the moment, he worked the audience into a sing-along, directing them like a choir.
I can only imagine how good he'll be in 20 more years.