Costello fluidly mixes romance, politics

Special to The Times

Elvis Costello and the Impostors opened their Friday performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall with Mose Allison’s mournful 1968 jazz ballad “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” a classic commentary on hypocrisy. The veteran English singer-songwriter earned loud cheers when he crooned the particularly relevant line, “Everybody’s crying peace on Earth, just as soon as we win this war.”

With this, Nick Lowe’s "(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and his own antiwar tune “Shipbuilding,” Costello commented on the Iraq war without making direct remarks. These were the more purely political moments in a two-hour-plus set that underscored the darkness and messy inseparability of his favorite subjects, romance and politics.

This first of two consecutive nights finally completed Costello’s obligations as last year’s artist-in-residence at the university. Appropriately, it emphasized his musical depth and breadth, as keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher fluidly followed their leader’s every twist and turn through a set spanning his 25-year recording career. Everything from such favorites as “Clubland” to such surprises as “The Long Honeymoon” was rearranged, often to be jazzier, but sometimes recalling Ray Charles-esque soul-pop and Costello’s 1998 Burt Bacharach collaboration, “Painted From Memory.”

Costello’s guitar reverberated with stentorian yet understated power. His frequently backed-off-the-microphone vocals showed ever-improving control and projection, especially on a solo acoustic “Still Too Soon to Know” done without amplification. The show’s melancholy tone felt most despairing during a poignant “All This Useless Beauty,” but interludes such as an absolutely stomping “High Fidelity” cut the tension and reminded listeners that Costello is never far removed from the fire.