It took Elvis Costello exactly one note to get an anxious Michigan Theater audience on its feet Tuesday, as he fairly ran to the microphone to deliver the opening couplet and power chord to "Welcome to the Working Week."
By the end of a solid, two-hour concert that explored near-hits, shoulda-beens, sing-alongs and a most righteous collection of cover tunes, that same audience was seemingly more drained than the singer himself, having run the gamut of raw-nerved emotions that is Costello's songbook.
That Costello, through sheer talent and restless artistry, has climbed to near the top of any list of living songwriters, is no longer at issue. That his new and otherwise overlooked songs are every bit as compelling as the radio-friendly rave-ups sees to that point.
What really cements any such claim is that Costello can draw from so many such songs — tunes so perfectly crafted that they should come with their own cases — without ignoring or shortchanging his A-list material.
So you get "Pump It Up," with all of its carnival organ and overt sexuality, sandwiched into a medley with the subtle, stately "Either Side of the Same Town" and the soul nugget "You've Really Got a Hold On Me." You get the George Jones tearjerker "A Good Year for the Roses" segueing into the chunky white reggae of "Watching the Detectives."
What you don't get is a lot of rote stager patter or introductions. Costello clearly wanted to play rather than talk Tuesday night; thus, he made every minute of his one-set, no-encore performance count.
Despite its nostalgic, rocked-out start, Tuesday's show didn't really hit cruising speed until several songs in, when longtime bandmates — and former Attractions — drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve simultaneously launched into "Radio Radio," which the band rendered in a note-perfect rendition that left Costello gasping to keep up.
In fact, Costello's phrasing has become so languid that his vocals frequently stray so far behind the beat that they almost end up in the previous chorus. It's an odd trick that's surprisingly effective, particularly on torchy numbers like the new "Country Doctors" and Nick Lowe's gorgeous "Don't Lose Your Grip On Love," which, like the staple "Alison," was rendered acoustically with Costello serenading from the orchestra pit.
The technique loses its effectiveness on faster tunes like "I Don't want to Go to Chelsea" and "Mystery Dance." Here, it just sounded like he couldn't catch up the band.
Costello and the Imposters — bassist Davey Faragher rounds out the revamped and renamed core of the Attractions — struck the perfect balance in "Lipstick Vogue," one of the singer's most clever and insistent tunes, on which Thomas, Faragher and Nieve worked as a perfect unit, turning the beat inside out halfway through and clearly enjoying playing off of one another.
In Thomas, Costello has a human metronome; in Nieve, a musical partner in crime, with whom he can fracture melodies and elongate phrases without having to worry about losing the thread. Faragher, newer than his bandmates but hardly a stranger to Costello's touring outfit, was rock steady on bass and provided able vocal harmonies.
By the last chords of the acoustic "The Scarlet Tide," Costello was playing acoustic guitar and singing off mic, his raspy voice filling the silent auditorium with a final breath of the final tune and letting his audience finally catch its own.