A great artist in one of his great periods playing a great theater.
That was the formula that made for an unforgettable performance by Elvis Costello Monday night at Benaroya Hall. The bard of the 1970s New Wave movement featured songs from his artful new album, North, as well as reinvigorated versions of some of his most classic songs, a few obscurities and covers, and even songs from his forthcoming "South" CD.
At 49, Costello showed that a rock star can remain vital and creative in middle age, without coasting on his past or compromising his integrity. His youthful songs of rebellion and cynicism were comparable in quality to his current ones about love lost and new love found. His situation has changed, but not his intelligence, passion or artistry.
The drama and emotions in his lyrics were emphasized by his brilliant delivery. His voice was better than ever, and he brilliantly used the near-perfect acoustics of the world-class concert hall. Several times he moved away from the microphone and let his unamplified voice fill the room, which thrilled the near-capacity audience.
In addition to the great songs and great singing, there was humor, too. During the droll "God's Comic," which he described as "a vision of the afterlife that's not spiritually correct," he worked in a comedy routine about Mel Gibson's fanaticism, the U.S. government's Orange Alerts, Iraq's phantom weapons of mass destruction and Vice President Dick Cheney's "Texas hand puppet."
Keyboardist Steve Nieve added drama to the songs, playing grand piano with classical flourishes and witty asides, as well as organ in a few numbers and a melodica, a handheld keyboard you blow like a trumpet.
Costello, in his usual black suit, black shirt and Buddy Holly-style black glasses — but with some bright blue highlights in his tie — opened with "45," a rocking meditation on 45-rpm singles, middle-age and World War II. He followed with "Green Shirt," from the '70s. Soon after came the powerful "Shot With His Own Gun," one of the obscure songs, from 1981's Trust LP.
The first showstopper was Bert Bacharach's "This House Is Empty Now." After Costello walked away from the mike and sang the last part a cappella, the audience leaped to its feet. The intensity continued with North's moving "You Left Me In the Dark" and "Someone Took the Words Away."
The generous set lasted 2½ hours, but the time breezed by. Other highlights were the delightful "Girls Talk," a ragged but rocking "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," a reworked "Watching the Detectives," a surprisingly emotional cover of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and an energetic "Pump It Up."