When banners dubbing Elvis Costello “The Beloved Entertainer” unfurled behind him late in his show on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, the gesture had an ironic cast, given Costello’s reputation for challenging songs and acerbic commentary far from the usual mass-appeal pop.
But Costello’s Irvine show was the work of artist-as-entertainer, an impressive, thoughtfully conceived reconciliation of an artist’s desire to explore new territory with an entertainer’s solicitous regard for fans who might be disoriented by too much exploration all at once.
Costello the explorer has enlisted a new band, the Rude 5 (actually a six-man outfit) to help him pursue the angular, twisting approach to pop that makes up much of his strong current album, “Spike.” The key additions, Tom Waits alumni Marc Ribot (guitar) and Michael Blair (percussion), lent Costello’s music an atomospheric, off-kilter feel when it was time to explore.
But Costello punctuated these journeys into pop’s twilight zone with regular walks down the Main Street of his career. He never let too many songs elapse before playing a familiar version of a crowd-pleasing favorite, ranging from one of his earliest hits, “Alison,” to his most recent, “Veronica.” Moreover, Costello was an engaging host, happy to lead the audience in sing-alongs and to give them stand-up comedy to boot.
“Pump It Up,” the finale of the two-hour-plus show, was one of the few numbers in which the Rude 5 achieved the blast-force drive of Costello’s old band, the Attractions.