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Music | POP MUSIC REVIEW

Mellow Costello: An angry youth matures

March 05, 2004|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

"Radio Radio" was an apt choice from Elvis Costello at UCLA's Royce Hall on Wednesday, given the escalating war over what's appropriate for the public airwaves and the veteran singer-songwriter's deep political streak. Performed during an extended encore segment, it also was a rare upbeat break in a two-hour set heavy on mournful romantic ballads.

But earlier, an overzealous fan in the balcony screamed his request for that 1978 tune at the worst moment possible: just as Costello was ending a particularly emotional number with a nuanced vocal flourish. The near-capacity crowd started from its collective reverie, while the artist upbraided the interloper with an invitation to leave. The audience cheered, and Costello then led a chant to mock-request "Radio Radio."

His righteous irritation and vengeful overkill reminded listeners that, despite the concert's mellow vibe, Costello, 49, hasn't shed the trappings of his angry youth so much as adapted them to more mature purposes.

Yet he was congenial between songs. Playing mostly acoustic guitar and expertly abetted by his longtime keyboardist, Steve Nieve, he offered mopey selections from his current album, "North," along with older torchy material such as "Almost Blue" and the stirring protest spiritual "Scarlet Tide," his Oscar-nominated song from "Cold Mountain."

Costello's understated theatricality sold even the slighter new tunes, and his recurring off-the-mike singing highlighted his considerable vocal control during a 55-minute set followed by an hour's worth of encore after encore.

This made for wonky pacing but allowed him to hit different subtle musical notes. Still, it was ironic that the man who at one point jokingly dissed hobbits ended up giving us a show with more endings than "The Return of the King."

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