ELVIS COSTELLO at UCLA Ackerman Grand Ballroom, May 28

Elvis Costello‘s Tuesday-night show ended after a series of encores (Five? Six? Was anyone counting?) with a drawn-out, sinister and altogether devastating rendition of his 1986 stalker’s ballad ”I Want You,“ for which his adoring, neck-craning, chorus-singing fans rewarded him by muscling close enough to the stage that we could watch the spit congeal in the corners of his mouth as he exhaled each last seductively menacing word. It was midnight, he‘d been playing since 9, and it had already become clear to most of us that dawn could break over this barn of a venue — the kind of joint you’d likely rent for your next low-budget wedding — before we‘d willingly let him go. Okay, some people had already left before the encores began, complaining, despite a rush of familiar old standbys early on (a cadence-altered ”Waiting for the End of the World“; ”Watching the Detectives“; ”I Don’t Want To Go to Chelsea“), that they didn‘t get to hear any of the songs they knew. And while it’s true he skipped over ”Alison,“ ”Everyday I Write the Book“ and Nick Lowe‘s ”What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding),“ he did speed through ”No Action“ from My Aim Is True and Imperial Bedroom‘s ”Beyond Belief“ — treasures so unexpected it was possible to fantasize that he might even trot out ”Hoover Factory“ or ”Black and White World.“ He didn’t. But those who stayed late got to scream along to his 1978 ”Radio, Radio,“ and marvel while genius keyboardist Steve Nieve went all ambient-spacey on a new song, ”Radio Silence,“ and twist to ”Tear Off Your Own Head (It‘s a Doll Revolution).“ The band — with bassist Dave Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas — even played a faithful-to-the-record ”Pump It Up.“ Happy now?

Observers over the years have accused Costello of various crimes: Being too remote, too hostile, too arrogant; epitomizing that angry young man for which England fancies itself so famous. But it’s all been bunk with which critics can safely contain a pop songwriter who still won‘t license his music to sell cars. At 47, with an epic new album in the bins, Costello is suddenly everywhere you look and listen, and yet he still confounds anyone’s cliche and shrugs off every category: He‘s a music hall legend with no real antecedent, a big-band leader with a rock & roll heart, a minstrel turned jazz apprentice who’s laid himself so bare that he‘s even done his woodshedding — with Brodsky, Bacharach, et al. — out in the open. On stage in what was loudly billed as his first dancehall show in 20 years, he emerged reborn again as an animated comedian collaborating at mischief, encouraging his fawning devotees to sing along and complimenting us all on our fine voices when we complied. ”Alibi,“ a tribute to all those lame excuses, turned into an anti-analysis ritual, with Costello acting out each descriptive line — ”You don’t fit the body that you‘re trapped in!“ he’d shriek, thrusting his arms into the air — and his audience, with appropriate dismissiveness, labeling each one in response: alibi, alibi. ”High Fidelity“ and ”You Belong To Me“ were done as reckless, rowdy anthems for a big love cynic‘s party.

It’s a testament to When I Was Cruel‘s genius that the new songs have become nearly as precious as the old a mere month after the record’s release, and evidence of Costello‘s mellowed maturity that some themes are radically different: When Costello introduced ”15 Petals,“ the song he wrote for wife Cait O’Riordan, and called it a ”love song,“ he meant it. And the guy standing next to me knew all the words.

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