It's fitting that Elvis Costello and his Imposters pulled out the impassioned rocker "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding" Friday night at Royce Hall, in Costello's last series of performances as Artist-in-Partial-Residence. Like a fifth-year student anchored in summer school to fulfill his science GE, Costello finally satisfied the quota he committed to the past year under UCLAlive. But in typical fashion, he pulled it off with fiery gusto.
Despite the show's low-key and quietly intense set, the classic anthem was a song he couldn't not play to wind down the night. With drums pounding, six-strings ringing and multi-instrumental phenomenon Steve Nieve frantically alternating from grand piano to keyboard to organ, fans filled the aisles and crammed the front of Royce Hall singing the words Costello crooned with guttural conviction, really the only way he knows how to croon.
The song was written in the '70s, but even the worst cynic could see its relevance that night, even with words that at one time were more suited for the Woodstock set: "And as I walk on through troubled times my spirit gets so downhearted sometimes." And then the glorious build up: "So where are the strong and who are the trusted? And where is the haaaaaarmony? Sweet harmony?”
Excepting perhaps the grooving "Clubland," it was the most invigorating moment of the night. The multi-talented Costello, who treads more musical styles than any angry British man should, played a predominately slow-tempo set to the seated Royce crowd. This wasn't the restless rock star who spontaneously combusted last year at Ackerman Grand Ballroom with rousing calling cards like "No Action" and "You Belong to Me," but was the aging elder statesman more attuned to Bacharach than The Beatles.
But Costello still appeased the fawning masses with slow-burning masterpieces such as "All this Useless Beauty," "I Want to Vanish" and "Shipbuilding." Even "Watching the Detectives" was tuned down from its reggae-tinged edge, giving it a menacingly swaggering flair.
Often railed on for his distant and at times bratty persona, Costello rarely had a hard time connecting to his most devoted fans during the show. Take the yearning ballad "Tart," off last year's I-could-reinvent-myself-again-but-what-fun-would-that-be album, "When I Was Cruel." The classic exercise in pop songcraft had the crowd singing along with Costello with such earnestness that the man himself stepped away the mic to let his people shine. "It's like a choir of angels," he said later with a toothy grin.
"When you get to be our age all the years become a blur," Costello said after one song. "One minute you're Artist-in-Residence, next thing you know Sonic Youth has taken your place." That erroneous remark could be taken several ways: as oblivious, hilarious or charming. During these troubled times, we at UCLA wouldn't want, or expect, anything less of him.