Elvis Costello -- who was in concert last night before a capacity crowd at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion -- is one of rock music's most engaging artists. Part rebel, part mystic, he gives performances that are miracles of understated ecstasy in which, above all, the music must come first.
Undoubtedly, Mr. Costello's approach could not work unless the songs themselves were of sufficient worth to sustain such scrutiny. Every song in last night's all-too-brief set stood up to the test well, showing off both his wry and penetrating lyrics as well as the astonishing range of his expression.
Such staples as "Accidents Will Happen," "Watch Your Step," and "Temptation" were balanced with excerpts from his newest album, "Mighty Like a Rose." These more recent songs -- particularly "The Other Side of Summer," "So Like Candy," and "Harpies Bizarre" -- represent some of his most exciting achievements yet, with their elliptical lyrics and more complex arrangements.
His four-piece backup band, The Rudes, matched the songwriter perfectly in the quiet intensity of their technique and their refreshingly unpretentious demeanor. The arrangements of the songs -- even if they did sound a bit stripped down for the songs from "Mighty Like a Rose" -- were all surprisingly effective.
In the '90s, it seems, rock music has become dominated by publicists selling the fleeting, momentary images of their megastars with a lot of style and not a little cynicism. Artists like Elvis Costello provide a pleasant defense against this attitude, offering a lot of hope and some very memorable music-making.