Review: Masterful Costello delivers, with help from Emmylou
By NICOLE KEIPER
''This is really the night you want your voice to be OK,'' a raspy Elvis Costello croaked on stage Wednesday night. It wasn't just because he, a lover of country music, was singing at The Ryman with a cold. But because he was singing at The Ryman with a cold, and Emmylou Harris.
The longstanding rock 'n' roll icon had already blasted through decades of his shape-shifting career, from the early young-and-angry Elvis through to the most recent woozy, bluesy one, before a vocal crag so much as surfaced. And even then — leave it to Elvis Costello to make a head cold artful — it sounded visceral and gritty.
He and The Imposters (longtime drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, with more recent addition Davey Faragher playing bass) ripped from early tracks The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes and an explosive Radio, Radio through to a gorgeously elegiac Country Darkness and slinky It's Needle Time from Costello's latest, The Delivery Man, before pausing.
He introduced Hidden Shame, a song he'd written for Johnny Cash that inspired the new record, and tore through an invigorating, angular (I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea. But he didn't even need to introduce Harris, a guest who added as much gorgeous grace to Wednesday night's show as to the tracks she sings with Costello on Delivery Man, before the crowd erupted.
The two sang tracks from Delivery together gorgeously, Harris' harmonies weaving with Costello's bold baritone on Heart Shaped Bruise and Nothing Clings Like Ivy; they sang the Everly Brothers' Sleepless Nights and The Louvin Brothers' My Baby's Gone just as gorgeously. And between, Costello and The Imposters ran through a rollercoaster set that bore out bits of the punk, rock, reggae, blues, lounge and country Costello's mined over his long career.
There were two moments in particular when the applause meter at The Ryman, if there were one, would've pinned dead right with a bullet. One was the second Harris took the stage. The other, at the end of the set, was after Costello stepped from his microphone to the front of the stage, bringing the room to dead silence by perfectly crooning a verse from The Scarlet Tide — a song he and T-Bone Burnett wrote and Alison Krauss recorded — up to the rafters, no amplification necessary, cold and all.
''I think he's doin' alright, wouldn't you say, folks?'' Harris asked the crowd. And boy was he.
And they were poignant moments, both of them, so they deserved their roars. The latter, not just because it gets you in the chest when a masterful singer like Costello shushes a room by quieting down himself, baring his voice and the room naked.