By any stretch, Elvis Costello has had quite a career, first breaking out in the “angry young men” group that included Joe Jackson and Graham Parker and turning his muse towards R&B, country and western, orchestral torch songs and whatever else he fancied. And during that time he’s cranked out some seminal records, and some others that wouldn’t be a glaring hole if they weren’t in the C section of your shelves. On his 32nd studio record, he’s tapped back into his rock muse and just released The Boy Named If, a raucous swinging set of songs that hearken back to his freewheeling days of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Along with the usual Imposters (Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas from the Attractions, Davey Faragher on bass), Charlie Sexton chipped in with his impressive guitar playing and Nicole Atkins reprised her vocal parts from the new record. “My Most Beautiful Mistake” was a particular effective mid-tempo rocker that Atkins’ voice curled up right against Costello’s. Billed as an updated take on “Watching The Detectives,” Costello’s wordsmithing remains sharp. “He made a portrait of her face out of burnt out matches” is as evocative as it gets. She also pitched in on King of America‘s “I’ll Wear It Proudly” while “Magnificent Hurt” was propelled by Nieve’s penny arcade keyboard lines.
On the recent “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” Costello eked out a pretty impressive facsimile of Marc Ribot’s guitar tone and style; shows that he’s not just locked in the vocal booth or sitting at a desk with loose leaf papers and half-sketched lyrics strewn about but has been steadily working on his guitar playing as well. Sexton is a formidable player, but Costello stood toe to toe with him on “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” and “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” was reworked with a murky, swampy beast of a groove that featured some stellar playing.
“We can play any song. If we know it, we can play it. If we don’t know it, we can probably play it.” Costello tossed out a slight boast early on but cashed in on it with the range of the songs from his early days. He’s not quite at the Dylan stage of reinventing/rearranging (some might say warping) songs so much that it takes a verse or two to place it, but he did put some hard tweaks into a few. “Radio Radio” started in a verse of some unknown language and “Mystery Dance” became a full-on rave up with a spoken word interlude stitched into the middle. On the early songs from Armed Forces, both “Accidents Will Happen” and “Green Shirt” strangely found Costello singing a half measure or so behind Thomas’ rock-solid timekeeping; I found it odd that he’d be so misaligned with material that he’s likely played hundreds of times.
Occasionally I’ll peek at a set list before the show to get a sense of what’s going to be played and a lot of bands play it safe by churning out the same set and encore night after night. Not so with Elvis, and just leading up to the end of his set he trotted out the harrowing and stalker-ish “I Want You,” a song of blind jealousy that’s been sporadically played over the last handful of tours. Ending the show with “Alison” seemed to be a bit of a letdown after the epic screed but then again the closer was another song of spurned love; despite that, everyone left the place with a smile on their faces.
Opener Nick Lowe’s been intertwined with Elvis for a long time now and it was no surprise that he was a touring partner. The luchador-wearing Los Straitjackets stood in again as his backing band, Lowe’s simple country-tinged songs getting a well-deserved amount of recognition and appreciation from the crowd. When Lowe left the stage for bit so the Straitjackets could bang out a couple of their surf-styled numbers, they tossed in the “Dirty Water” lick and then did a cover of a Celine Dion song! Keeping on brand, Lowe appeared back on stage with a different shirt on. He couldn’t leave the stage without playing “Cruel To Be Kind” or “(What’s So Funny) ‘Bout Peace Love And Understanding” but it took until midway through Costello’s set that he’d re-appear and play it. A nice gesture by Elvis, and a ringing clarion call that holds true more than ever in today’s world.