Elvis Costello would seem to have little to be angry about these days. The 48-year-old singer-songwriter was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year and, more recently, he announced his engagement to jazz goddess Diana Krall.
So why the melancholia that drenched Monday's otherwise impressive performance at Wolf Trap's Filene Center?
The concert's somber tone let Mr. Costello plumb his songbook for lesser known numbers such as "I Wanna Be Loved" and "My Dark Life."
Early career crowd-pleasers such as "Alison," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Accidents Will Happen" didn't make the cut, nor did many other concert mainstays.
With no new album to plug, the singer seemed to feel little pressure to cater to the expectations of his audience, which nonetheless cheered him on unreservedly. And why not? They've followed him from punk rock to country to collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and Burt Bacharach. What's one more curveball among old friends?
Mr. Costello wasted no time entering into the spirit of the Beltway, pointedly opening his set with a snippet from the Dixie Chicks' hillbilly romp, "White Trash Wedding."
At a music industry dinner in Beverly Hills in May, Mr. Costello had defended the country music trio after the musicians landed in hot water when lead singer Natalie Maines denounced President Bush at a concert in England.
The social commentary didn't stop there.
Mr. Costello then launched into Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy," emphasizing a few key phrases, lest there be any doubt where he stands on American and British military intervention in Iraq.
"Everybody's crying peace on earth, just as soon as we win this war," he sang, his nasal delivery at full blast.
Packed into a charcoal suit as gray as his mood, Mr. Costello was supported by the Imposters. Two of the band's three members — drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve — are holdovers from the Attractions, the crack band that backed him during his most creatively successful years and who entered the rock hall of fame with him. Their musical chemistry permitted Mr. Costello to freely reinterpret much of his material.
"(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" bristled, while "Watching the Detectives" gained a fresh glow from its bluesy makeover.
Some of his tinkering proved inspired. He turned "Toledo," the most melodic of his recordings with Mr. Bacharach, into a wrenching ballad that ended with the instruments fading and his voice diminished to a lover's breathy whisper.
Lesser known but worthy songs such as "Clubland" and "So Like Candy," as bitter a love song as the singer could pen, filled out the set list.
The results were mixed the few times he tried to goose up the evening. The concert's overall tempo shifted so often it left fans unsure if they should be on their feet or in their seats.
"Pump It Up" lacked vigor, although, paradoxically, the listless performance showed just how structurally sound the raveup remains.
A few songs meandered aimlessly, and Mr. Costello dispensed entirely with stage banter or other interaction with the audience during this sometimes self-indulgent and self-important show.
Nick Lowe's much-covered "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" served as the obvious way to cap the evening.
Opener Chris Robinson performed a sound acoustic rock set that bore not a trace of his famous ex-band, the Black Crowes.
His introspective folk, nursed by an imperfect voice, drew mostly from his solo debut, New Earth Mud. He also displayed impeccable taste, covering songs by Ray Charles and Bob Dylan, but his own compositions suffered by comparison.
Like Mr. Costello, he eschewed his past hits, favoring somber numbers less suited to his voice than his full-bodied rock efforts.
Through it all, his lanky frame remained slightly crooked, as if bearing the weight of lofty expectations.
The singer has yet to find his own patch of sunlight outside the twin shadows of the Crowes and his famous missus, Kate Hudson. The crowd's warm response could signal a second chance for Mr. Robinson.