Elvis Costello received a standing ovation before he even started on Thursday at Strathmore. The legendary singer-songwriter was in town to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as part of the venue's "BSO Pops Rocks" series, which brought out eager Costello fans who might not normally venture into the blond-wood auditorium — or even bother with his various orchestral and jazz-oriented works.
While the sold-out audience seemed to enjoy the first 35 minutes of the concert — where the symphony, alone, ran through 12 brief selections from Il Sogno, Costello's score for an Italian ballet company's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream — the crowd blew a collective gasket when Elvis reentered the building and grabbed his acoustic guitar.
Costello did a solo rendition of the new song "The River in Reverse" (about New Orleans) and was joined by the BSO for "All This Useless Beauty" and "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" before intermission.
One woman on her way to the lobby spoke for pretty much everyone when she said, "At least he's playing some songs we know now."
And Costello didn't let that lady down in the second half.
Joined by the BSO and Steve Nieve, his longtime pianist from the Attractions, Costello performed plenty of favorites, including a pretty "Almost Blue," a jazzy, jumbled and awkward "Watching the Detectives" and three orchestral-pop tunes he wrote with Burt Bacharach: "Painted From Memory," "God Give Me Strength" and "I Still Have That Other Girl," the last of which came with his first encore. In fact, it was Costello's encores, such as a gorgeous "Alison" and an off-mike rendition of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," that worked best — even if they made the show run a bit late and caused one nervous stagehand to pop out onstage and give Costello the neck-slash "cut" sign.