Elvis Costello and the three Attractions sprinted onto the Merriweather Post Pavilion stage last night like the Baltimore Orioles infield bounding out of the dugout. Mr. Costello lunged at the microphone and sang out: "Oh, I just don't know where to begin!" The band ran through "Accidents Will Happen" in a fast, impatient rush. There's good reason for this band's eagerness, for they've reached that rare, peak moment: Elvis Costello is probably the greatest rock and roll talent of his generation, and is now performing at the height of his powers.
Mr. Costello is rock's best wordsmith since Bob Dylan was at the height of his powers. With sharp puns and jagged dialogue fragments, Mr. Costello has used language to slice open the knots in which language has tied us. He bitterly attacked romantic myths that make hope for real love nearly impossible. His recent forays into country music and cabaret jazz have greatly enriched his singing technique.
Last night this technique brought new life to songs as Mr. Costello varied key lines to wrench them out of the normal melody and into new emotional contexts. He would reveal the bitterness in one reading and the stubborn hope in the next.
Mr. Costello's new vocal abilities gave his stage performance a breadth it never had before. He has finally combined the vocal style of Bob Dylan in 1965 with that of his dad, Ross McManus, an English jazz singer in the 50s. This give Mr. Costello both rage and the craft he wants. It has also has freed him to radiate a new warmth and generosity on the stage. Once a proud possessor of rock's fiercist snarl, he now bantered with the crowd and thanked them for applause. He smiled bashfully when bassist Bruce Thomas announced that it was Mr. Costello's 27th birthday.
The songs on his new album, Imperial Bedroom, often sounded overly baroque and mannered on vinyl. In concert, though, they were stripped down to essential parts and got right to the point. "Shabby Doll," the tale of sleazy affair, became a dark confession in its streamlined version. Mr. Costello repeated the line, "she's a shabby doll" — first accusing, then self-accusing, then sad. He gave "Kid About It" a great, desperate plea in a style of a '40s torch singer. "Tears Before Bedtime," had the affective starkness of the best country soap opera ballads.
Just as Mr. Costello has improved with experience, so have his three backing musicians. Drummer Pete Thomas gave "Green Shirt" the sinister throb of a hospital heart machine. On "Pump It Up," bassist Bruce Thomas did just that, but it was keyboardist Steve Nieve who supplied most of the musical textures, whether it was the soul organ on "Secondary Martyr," the reggae bounce to "Watching the Detective" or the synthesized string charts in "Every Room." Mr. Nieve's large musical presence enabled Mr. Costello to ignore his guitar when he wanted to and just sing his heart out.
On "Alison," his most poignant ballad, he sang the closing line, "my aim is true," against a melody so that it sounded first like a threat and then like a promise. Mr. Costello paid tribute to his roots in American music by singing songs from Smokey Robinson, Hank Williams and many others. The best songs of the night, though, were two from last year's Trust album. In "New Lace Sleeves," he warned that "you never see the lies you believe," with a haunting hush. On "You Better Watch Your Step," he whispered the title warning as confidential advice and then cried it out as a public warning.
Opening the show was Talk Talk, a young British synth-pop quartet. There seemed to be little music inside their high-tech synthesizer sound and little personality inside their pose as "Serious Young Men."