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Costello has sweetest punch -- still

The prognosis for Angry Young Men is never good. They die, or disappear into the maw of middle age, or, most horrible of all, keep at it. From a less artful punk, the vicious sentiments and paranoid delivery of Elvis Costello's early albums might have suggested a prime candidate for a bad ending. His songs were mean and he looked like a brainy time bomb. It turns out that's exactly what he was: a literate and distinguished songwriter who exploded in every musical direction.

Costello's two-hour concert at the Wang last night spanned his 27-year recording history, stretching back to the venomous ska-noir of "Watching the Detectives" and including many of the languid, lovely pieces from last year's "North," his 20th album of new material. It's hard to think of another artist who could command a stage while toggling with reckless abandon between rock tunes and torch songs. Or one who would venture to replace the raucous brawl of a rhythm section with the delicate pluck and velveteen whirl of a string quartet. Costello succeeds because he hasn't changed. The thing that fed the creative fires of his cranky youth -- a brilliantly unlikely mash of advanced craft and raw passion -- is the same stuff that fuels his ambitious new music.

Costello threw the fans a few bones out of the gate, opening the show with "45," "Accidents Will Happen," "Home Truth," and "Suit of Lights." Longtime pianist Steve Nieve's ornate, baroque fills on the grand piano and psychedelic melodica moved in odd and often delirious counterpoint to Costello's nuts-and-bolts guitar thrashing. They rocked, elegantly.

When the Brodskey Quartet emerged for the first of several chamber music minisets, the ambience turned gloriously avant garde. The quartet kicked out the punches -- no joke -- on "Rocking Horse Road" with a wild and complicated arrangement. They careered through a supple Sgt. Pepper's-style accompaniment on "My Mood Swings," from the "Big Lebowski" soundtrack, and a cover of Randy Newman's "Real Emotional Girl." The sound of Costello's cracked warble surfing the perfectly burnished waves of cello and violin was more than gorgeous; it was downright moving.

The lengthy sections devoted to music from "North" felt, well, lengthy. The pieces are slow and intense, drenched in great intimacy and admirable style, but entirely without hooks. During those stretches it felt more like one was watching Costello relive his changes of heart than perform for an audience. A man of few spoken words, he saved them all up for an extended monologue in the middle of "God's Comic," a demented Tin Pan Alley rocker that imagines heaven, Costello explained, as a VIP lounge in a bad nightclub in 1985 where "Hungry Like the Wolf" plays over and over again. A round of stellar Bush-and-Cheney-bashing abounded, followed straightaway by an epic, two-man stand on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?" It didn't get any better, or more poetic, or more musical, than that.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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