With his ceaseless cross-generic dabblings and strange-bedfellow musical pairings, Elvis Costello has passed beyond mere eclecticism. He's become a thought experiment, the protagonist of a Borges story — the man who proposes to write and record in every musical genre known, imagined and imaginable, limited only by the laws of acoustics.
Seeing Mr. Costello live these days, it can be hard to fight down expectations of something extra in the offing: an all-star jam with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, a chamber-music recital sandwiched between electric sets, wife Diana Krall turning up to purr "Almost Blue" accompanied by the Metropole Orkest — or at least a vocal duet with Lucinda Williams.
When instead all you get is an Elvis Costello concert, you almost feel cheated.
Elvis Costello and the Imposters sprinted through more than two dozen songs from the first decade of the music legend's career before a capacity crowd Friday night at the 9:30 Club, the penultimate date on a just-ended 10-city U.S. tour promoting two more milk-the-consumer Costello compilations — The Best of Elvis Costello: The First Ten Years and Rock and Roll Music.
Galloping through his set of mostly up-tempo rockers, the usually loquacious Mr. Costello did not speak to his appreciative — if not transported — audience until he had been onstage for more than an hour, when he finally paused to say, with a sly grin, "Good evening."
Despite the breakneck pacing and furious attack of the Imposters (the Attractions, but with Cracker's Davey Faragher replacing Bruce Thomas on bass) the show was oddly uninvolving for much of its length.
Starting with "Welcome to the Working Week," the set list was heavily weighted toward driving, almost forgotten album filler (the kind threatened with oblivion in the new cherry-picking download era) — "The Beat," "Lover's Walk," "Lipstick Vogue" to name a few.
Call them rarities, if you want to be kind — but what in the early-period Costello song catalog isn't a rarity? The only two Costello singles that ever cracked the U.S. top 40 were "Everyday I Write the Book" and "Veronica."
It's not as if fans are tired already of delectable early Costello pop confections such as "Accidents Will Happen" and "Oliver's Army" or gorgeous ballads such as "Party Girl" and "Almost Blue." Why not sprinkle a few through the set to vary the mood?
These are the kinds of songs that earned Mr. Costello a reputation as his generation's best pop songwriter — "Strict Time" and "Uncomplicated," which made Friday's cut, are the sort that earned him a reputation as its most ... industrious.
(And how could he neglect "Shipbuilding," the antiwar threnody that could drive Don Rumsfeld to pitch a tent at Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey? Plainly, the bloody impasse in Iraq was much on Mr. Costello's mind — he seeded his set with snippets of John Lennon's "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier" and closed with his signature version of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding?")
Look — I spent much of the packed concert in the standing-room-always venue hunting for a vantage point that afforded a view of the stage that didn't entail vibrating in place in front of a speaker tower that fired each explosive pulse of Pete Thomas' kick drum straight at my sternum. I felt lucky to get intermittent glimpses of V-shaped wedges of Mr. Costello — and never really saw what Steve Nieve was up to on the keyboards. If the performance felt somehow remote, well — for me, it was.
The concert did ultimately take off — beginning with a suitably incendiary "End of the World" during the first of three extended encore suites.
The second encore saw Mr. Costello strap on an acoustic guitar for a solo "Alison," the searing ballad that became a standard without ever having been a hit. Its familiar melody was jazzily transformed beyond recognition in the second verse into a rebuilt Costello classic that would fit easily on My Flame Burns Blue's swingin' "Watching the Detectives" and mambo "Clubland."
Even the intimations of something extra were finally realized — in the shape of Allen Toussaint. The New Orleans R&B giant sat in on keyboards for "The River in Reverse" (the Costello-penned title song from the 2006 Costello-Toussaint album collaboration), Mr. Costello's "Monkey to Man" and his own monument of soulful uplift, "Yes We Can Can."
In recent years, Mr. Costello has been indefatigably composing and releasing new music — everything from classical and jazz to roots music and punishingly dull art songs. In the meantime, his original medium — rock 'n' roll — has been reduced to little more than a lucrative legacy. In this genre, he has mostly limited himself to repackaging, reissuing and refashioning material he recorded decades ago.
It's fair to wonder: Does Elvis Costello truly enjoy playing rock anymore?
On Friday night, he rehashed — with professionalism, if not passion — a generous but monotonous string of old rock songs that in the iTunes age could soon be forgotten. Nothing wrong with that — but for his next trick, Mr. Costello might try writing some new rock songs that won't be.
The music world could use some sardonic, literate, meticulously crafted and catchy, endlessly inventive pop rock — the genre that a protean polymath named Elvis Costello once made all his own.