in performance: elvis costello and the imposters

Elvis Costello. Photo by Stephen Done.

When a four-decade career has weathered numerous shifts and detours through the pop universe, an audience can become understandably fractured. The problem with that? Fashioning a concert program that appeals to as much of that far-reaching fanbase as possible. Elvis Costello made all that look ridiculously easy Sunday evening at the Louisville Palace with a fun, vital and immensely electric performance alongside with his long-running Imposters band. It was part garage-rock brawl, part pop-soul manifesto and part post-punk carnival.

Fancy the favorites? The Imposters covered just about every lasting hit in the Costello catalog, from a playful “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” and to a prayer-like concert finale of “Alison” that morphed into the 1968 Supremes/Temptations hit “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” The most beguiling of the classics, though, remained “Watching the Detectives.” Costello hotwired it with a subtle but pronounced urgency over the dub-like atmospherics of keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas (holdovers from the singer’s Attractions band of the ‘70s and ‘80s) and a visual backdrop of vintage film noir posters (including “Kansas City Confidential” AND “New York Confidential,” no less).

Looking for obscurities? Ah, this is where the show really got interesting. Costello spent roughly half of the concert rummaging through the more distant chapters of his songbook. The excavation began at the onset of the evening with the show-opening “Strict Time” (from 1981’s exquisite “Trust” album) that was delivered with a punctuated, Bo Diddley-inspired groove. Later, the show downshifted with Costello at the piano for Allen Toussaint’s stately “The Greatest Love” (a bonus track from the 2006 Costello/Toussaint collaboration “The River in Reverse”). The biggest surprise, though, had to be “Next Time ‘Round,” a dark hullabaloo off of 1986’s “Blood and Chocolate” full of ragged melodic hooks, glorious vocal support from Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee and an ensemble Imposters sound that framed the song’s Brit-pop accent with punkish immediacy.

Want a song from the present day? For all of the time tripping, Costello stayed current. There were a pair of tunes from 2018’s “Look Now” – a pared down reading of “Suspect My Tears” that replaced the studio version’s lush orchestration with a leaner neo-soul sheen, and the more outwardly Motown-ish “Mr. and Mrs. Hush” with its jubilantly defiant chorus chant of “Are you ready?” There were also intriguing previews of a musical Costello is basing around the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” highlighted by the snake-oil spiritualism of “Blood and Hot Sauce” (“Keep your hand on the Bible and your finger on the trigger”).

For all of his considerable rock ‘n’ roll persona, Costello often revealed himself as a traditionally minded stage entertainer, whether it was through occasional vaudeville-esque wisecracking (“I have the face of a priest. He wants it back.”) or letting a wildly fervent “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” slip briefly into the calmer romantic breeze of the “West Side Story” serenade “Somewhere.”

Such is the odyssey of a pop journeyman mindful of his musical past and future but still very much at home in his performance skin of the moment.



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