Of all the great acts introduced during the era of punk and new wave back in the late 1970s, one of the few to not only survive but advance out of the scene was Elvis Costello.
The singer did that by successfully transitioning his music to a broader and more traditional pop and other genres in a career than now has spanned 40 years.
One of the most important of Costello's transitional albums was 1982's Imperial Bedroom, to which Costello paid tribute Sunday in a show at Sands Bethlehem Event Center that returned him to his band The Imposters, with pianist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, who backed him on the disc.
Still the iconoclast, Costello didn't follow the recent trend of artists honoring albums by playing them sequentially. He didn't even play all of the disc's 15 songs – skipping two, including one of its best known, "Almost Blue." And he played almost as many non-album cuts as those from the disc in a 25-song set that lasted just a couple of minutes short of two hours.
Rather, Costello used it to show how his music progressed. He opened the show with a cut from the disc's "bonus tracks" and perhaps one of its more punkishly sardonic, "The Town Where Time Stood Still."
Wearing a red hat (which he shed for most of the show) and dressed in a sports coat, the 62-year-old Costello then led his three-man band and two backup singers into the more new-wave-pop song "The Loved Ones" before breaking away from the disc to play a more reserved version of his hit "Accidents Will Happen."
He explained the diversion to the crowd, a couple hundred seats short of a sellout, by saying, "We've been wanting to play the album for you," Costello told the "We never had the discipline before. We don't now, either."
That was followed by the also punky, forceful "You Little Fool," his voice wailing and his head shaking.
But as the show progressed, Costello's playing most of the songs from Imperial Bedroom also showed the things that let Costello advance and change sometimes came at the cost of some of what made him so great in the first place: unbridled energy and sneering confidence.
He broadened his base by sometimes softening his best attributes.
"We used the music to push it father away," he said in regards to emotions before a slow, dirge-like "Tears Before Bedtime." "Now we're going to pull it closer."
But most of the songs from Imperial Bedroom were middling and middle-of-the-road. Costello performed them well and even played a good mid-song guitar solo on the classic pop offering "Shabby Doll." But too many songs, such as "Human Hands" and "Kid About It" came off flat.
It was especially noticeable when some of those songs would bump up against the other hits from his career that he included in the set: A stark version of "Allison" performed with just his guitar and backup singers. It got the night's biggest hand.
Another early favorite, "Watching the Detectives," was strong, but Costello played the entire song on a darkened stage as images of pulp fiction flashed on a big screen – making the audience feel as if it was listening to recorded music. What was the purpose of that?
One big exception was the Imperial Bedroom song "Pidgin English," which was far more dynamic and Costello far more animated on it, offering extended, good lead guitar.
Some of the non-Imperial Bedroom songs he included also were latter-day recordings in the same middle-of-the-road vein. "You'll Never Be a Man," a 1981 song that foreshadowed Costello's shift in sound, was uninspiring.
An almost classical, voice-and-piano version of his 1980 song "Shot With His Own Gun" and "This House is Empty Now," his 1999 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, both were musically solid ‘70s radio pop, but neither rose above that.
The end of the set was stronger. "… And in Every Home" was more fully realized instrumentally, and "Man Out of Time" was better both musically and vocally – showing that The Imposters could, indeed, still rock, and he sang with more vigor.
The main set closed with "Everyday I Write the Book," which stretched to eight minutes with band introductions, and it was funkier than the whole rest of the set.
With the show's focus, perhaps it was understandable for Costello to forego early favorites such as "Less Than Zero," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Radio Radio." But if he wanted to demonstrate the evolution of his music, there would have been no better example than 1989's "Veronica," his only No. 1 hit in the United States. But it was left unplayed.
Ironically, the encore was two songs from 1978 – the delightfully punky and energetic "Pump It Up," right into "(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" – that not only were very good, but were received the best by the crowd, which rushed the stage.
It was as if Costello knew that was him at his best – and it was.