Elvis Costello has recorded some wonderful songs in the last few decades, but his material (like anyone else's) could easily stagnate if he let it.
Fortunately, he won't let it. This student of rock history has found ways to stave off boredom — both the audience's and his own. Like Bob Dylan, he's willing to rearrange his melodies, and he has a huge catalog from which to draw. Songs sometimes dissolve or segue into one-another, and they keep on coming as if shot from a gun.
At a Costello show, you're going to get a smattering of chunky and verbose favorites, some interesting obscurities and a batch of new material that holds up surprisingly well against chestnuts like "Alison" and "Uncomplicated."
His shows can be long, but when your eyelids start to droop, he wakes you up with something unexpected — a guitar freakout or an intimate ballad or a searing rendition of something more than 20 years old, like "Pump It Up."
The 50-year-old singer-songwriter played for 150 minutes with his band the Imposters Sunday night at the sold-out Tabernacle, and the quartet managed to keep things interesting even as the set pushed toward (and past) the 30-song mark in a single marathon set.
Drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Davey Faragher and longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve left lots of space in the music, which seemed appropriate for the generous sampling of material from Costello's 2004 album, The Delivery Man, which was recorded in Mississippi and retains the scaled-back energy of early rock 'n' roll.
At its best, the band broke Costello's material down to its raw materials, dismantling the tunes and tinkering with the pieces. Members would hold back or fall out altogether, allowing the others to surge and show off. During one particularly memorable moment, when Costello's guitar conversed with Pete Thomas' drums, the band sounded like the Detroit garage-blues duo the White Stripes.
Other, more conventional highlights included the lesser-known gems "King Horse" and "Suit of Lights," the set-closing "The Scarlet Tide" (sung, in part, unamplified), plus the rocking cover tunes "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."