In the darkened Paramount, on a dimly lit stage, stood Elvis Costello, all dressed in black. Wearing his usual black Buddy Holly-style horn-rimmed glasses and with his hair trimmed short, as always, he cut a nostalgic figure.
The man standing on stage with a guitar around his neck could have been the Elvis Costello of 20 years ago, the revolutionary star of the English punk/new-wave movement who revived rock songcraft with a Dylanesque flourish, inspired countless bands and left a legacy of classic songs.
He could have been that man, that is, until he started to sing.
Last night's performance was not so much a rock show as it was a recital. Costello, who used to sing with abandon when he was backed by his band, the Attractions, took great care in his singing, realizing every nuance of his carefully constructed lyrics. He seemed to enjoy showing the capacity audience that his gravelly voice could soar higher than ever, and that he could sustain those notes longer. He stressed dynamics, sometimes moving away from the microphone for vocal effect - so far that he sometimes stepped out of his single stationary spotlight.
Steve Nieve, his longtime keyboardist, going back to the original Attractions, also took a more studied approach, playing his grand piano with flourish, throwing in the occasional quote from a piece of classical music or a jazz standard. An unrecorded Costello/Nieve song, "You Lie Sweetly," epitomized the high artistic tone of their current pairing.
Costello seemed to choose the most dramatic songs from his catalog for his display of vocal strength. The more than two dozen songs in the 2½-hour set leaned toward newer material, including some from his recent collaboration with Burt Bacharach. He also did some of his classics, turning a few into showstoppers.
A much-lengthened "God's Comic" was the most entertaining, with Costello imitating the other Elvis attempting to do Duran Duran's "Rio" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass." He even threw in a devilish crack about Bill Gates.
"Radio Sweetheart," which he said was the first song he ever recorded, inspired an audience sing-along. He paired it beautifully with Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said." The rockingest song of the night was "Watching the Detectives," on which he played electric guitar. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" energized the last part of the set.
"Alison," which he sang simply and beautifully, was memorable for the same reason it's always been - the sweet, delicate lyric. Same for "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea."
"Almost Blue" and "Veronica" were also touchingly sung. He brought drama and emotion to songs about troubled relationships and hard times, including "What's Her Name Today," "This House Is Empty Now," "Indoor Fireworks," "Shallow Grave," "I Want You," "I Still Have That Other Girl" and especially "God Give Me Strength." "Pads, Paws & Claws" and "Inch by Inch," paired with "Fever," were welcomingly lighthearted.