For the 90 minutes of their concert at the Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center Wednesday, Elvis Costello and the Attractions displayed a mastery of their medium that went beyond ego, technique or questions of intent. The musicians delivered nearly 30 pieces of music with the apparent effortlessness and innate stylishness that only virtuosos can muster.
Far from fulfilling the stereotypes of disaffection and anger that colored his early career, Costello — backed by two saxophone players, a trumpet player and a trombone player as well as the Attractions' keyboards, bass and drums — rendered previously urgent tunes through soulful balladeering, even relaxed crooning. Mystery replaced confusion, and assurance replaced anguish in what amounted to a reinterpretation of a body of work whose durability was cast into higher relief than before.
In its original version "Secondary Modern" is a plaintive, adolescent reassurance that "there won't be a problem till the girls go home." Wednesday Costello delivered the line with a husky, almost jaunty intimacy that suggested a night's events may have run so full a course that going home is the only natural thing left for the girls to do.
Costello delivered the entire concert unaccompanied by other vocalists, keeping his audience rapt through sets of impressive duration and variety, resorting to an artfully understated repertoire of songster's gestures reminiscent of Frank Sinatra.
Key to the concert's success was the rare symbiosis between Costello and his musicians. Relaxed, confident and given a prominence to match Costello's — both on stage and in the sound mix — the band was a combo in the truest sense: unified, revelrous and infectious.
Activities at the edge of the culture's popular sensibilities — including the early 1970s rock movement of which Costello was a part — often pretend to the realm of art to try to redeem their obscurity. By the time Elvis Costello and the Attractions performed their second encore, "Pump It Up," it was clear that — like love, movies or cars — Elvis Costello's music is far too immediate. rich and sympathetic to common concerns to be consigned to art's attic.