Costello and the Imposters share a timeless style
April 19, 2005
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
In any other setting, Elvis Costello would have appeared outdated singing "Clubland," his cynical pop tune about a joint where you "shoot the pony" and "do the jerk." But on Sunday night, Costello, 50, stood on the Auditorium Theatre stage and shaped the song -- nearly a quarter of a century old -- into something current.
The singer was bathed in a golden light that made him look like an Oscar statue while his band, the Imposters, toiled in subdued purple shades. I wondered what Costello would be without this superb band, featuring longtime collaborator Steve Nieve on keyboards, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher, formerly of Cracker. I fear he might be that fancy guy who sang "Let's Misbehave" in the Cole Porter movie "De-Lovely." (Find out for yourself when Costello and the Imposters return July 27 at the Ravinia Festival.)
But one thing is clear: The Imposters are a great rock 'n' roll band. I'd go see them play behind Michael Buble. They submit themselves to the song -- shaping, toning and flexing muscle while also finding room for improvisation. With his stringy black hair dangling across his eyes, Nieve often spun into his own world during Sunday's two-hour concert, punching out abbreviated post-punk notes on "Mystery Dance," yet playing the role of Hargus "Pig" Robbins on Costello's engaging pop-a-top cover of Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down."
The relationship between Faragher and Thomas is equally fascinating. Faragher hands off bass lines to Thomas, who in no uncertain terms defines Costello's motif with the accent of a cymbal or the brush on a drum. Thomas subscribes to a big beat (I bet he listened to a lot of Dave Clark Five records), but he never overplays. This space enables Costello to wander around a vast musical landscape. One of Faragher and Thomas's deepest connections came during "Needle Time," in which their Muddy Waters "I'm a Man" backbeat roared through the hall where Waters himself once headlined.
Costello consistently and sometimes uncomfortably switched gears, connecting with the audience on a pub-rock version of Hank Williams' "(Why Don't You Love Me) Like You Used to Do", then calming everyone down with the ballad "Either Side of the Same Town" from his latest disc, "The Delivery Man." Next was "I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)," and of course everyone stood up again. There were so many polite audience ups and downs, I felt as if Costello was the judge and I was back on jury duty.
With Thomas laying down a soft jazz rhythm on brushes, Costello offered a bold reading of "The Poison Rose," although his phrasing was country-scratchy. At this juncture, Declan MacManus sounded like Delbert McClinton. Costello had performed a Sunday afternoon set for a radio promotion at Schubas, and he appeared with his band the previous night in Milwaukee. On Sunday night, he often sounded taxed.
Costello didn't roar to his typical outrageous finish (the best one being at Taste of Chicago in July 2003). Sunday's set (no encores) concluded with a powerful version of "Pump It Up," an audience sing-along on the timeless "Alison," which Costello then dovetailed into a similar downtempo version of the Elvis Presley hit "Suspicious Minds." Costello and the Imposters closed with the ballad "The Scarlet Tide," his Grammy-nominated song from the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack, during which he sang a verse a cappella that surely was lost in the upper reaches of the cavernous Auditorium. This was a dramatic yet needless exercise. It was Costello, lost without the Imposters.