At the end of the third encore after the fourth standing ovation EIvis Costello asked for the PA to be turned off. Moving to front of stage, he began to sing, his unamplified tenor spiralling towards the starry ceiling of the Capitol.
The song, "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," was a dramatic narrative of doubt and hope. The singer's performance, chest swelling, head tilted back and outstretched fingers following the movements of the tune, was as much theatre as pop, an elegantly dark cabaret. It seemed, in sound and vision, to sum up the direction Costello's career has taken in the last few years.
But while he may have traded rock aspirations for the more dignified paths of a musical middle age, the adrenalised 25-year-old was never far from the surface. No matter what kind of material he tackled, from the economical country of "Good Year For The Roses" to the complex musings of his recent collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Costello approached it with the intensity and passion that have characterised his work since he first appeared in the late 1970s.
And though he may be older and a yard slower these days, he still hit the stage with a hop, a skip and a run to the microphone, an energised man keen to rush headlong into the evening.
With his days as frontman for the Attractions permanently behind him (for the second time), Costello's basic concert format now encompasses his microphone, his acoustic guitar and long-time sideman (and former Attraction) Steve Nieve on piano. It's a line-up that is financially practical (cheap and portable) as well as artistically flexible. Indeed, after a few songs, I found myself wondering why it had taken him nearly 20 years to arrive at the idea.
In a two-hour show the duo dressed in clerical black with close-cropped hair and spectacles, visited most of the stations of Costello's writing career. "Temptation" benefited from a new arrangement, polishing its disgust all the way to compassion. "Blue Chair" abandoned its pop crunch for a whisper-to-a-scream show of dynamics. "Oliver's Army" was more frantic than ever. "The Long Honeymoon" headed off to visit Kurt Weill's grave. "Veronica" seemed cluttered and "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" blustery, but these were aberrations.
Costello is always one to acknowledge a debt or a love, and fragments of other songwriters' work appeared throughout his own. Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" found its way into "Radio Sweetheart." The theme from the TV series Callan interrupted "Watching The Detectives." "Accidents Will Happen" annexed a few lines of Bacharach's "24 Hours From Tulsa," a nod of the head later repeated when the excoriating "I Want You" dropped momentarily into the cheery relief of "Say A Little Prayer."
Bacharach's spectral presence was emphasised with the inclusion of seven songs from the Painted From Memory album.
"In The Darkest Place" seemed improved by its sparse arrangement, while "Toledo" lacked its recorded swing. The former also showed just how far Costello's vocal skills have come in the past few years (though he was a little hoarse on the night, his voice catching on difficult notes). Never a gifted singer, he has learnt to achieve more within his limitations than many true naturals do without them.
But though Costello and his songs were ultimately the stars of the evening, Nieve was the revelation. Away from the testosterone-fuelled attack of the Attractions what impressed were his stunning touch and control. His baroque excursions around and across the melody line were a highlight, his constant small inventions making every turn an unexpected and delightful surprise.