Marrying a jazz musician has turned Elvis Costello into a new man. Back in the day, the guitarist-by-default considered his chops so lacking that he nicknamed himself L.H.C. — Little Hands of Concrete. But since hooking up with singer-pianist Diana Krall, he seems to have ferociously applied himself to his instrument. During Costello's two-plus hour gig at La Zona Rosa, he played solo after solo — most of them brief, but all of them respectable. During a long version of 1981's "Clubland," he actually played two solos — which is two more than he used to play in an entire show. (And one of them quoted Leonard Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty"!) Actually, there was a lot of everything; Costello and The Imposters (longtime Attractions Steve Naive and Pete Thomas on keyboards and drums and Davey Faragher on bass) whipped through 29 songs by my count. Many of them were from the band's recent, pretty good album, The Delivery Man, though Costello wisely warmed up the crowd with two vintage favorites, "King Horse" and "Uncomplicated."
It was the old semi-hits — "Radio, Radio," "Blame It On Cain," "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," "Pump It Up," "Mystery Dance" and "High Fidelity" — that, predictably, got the most response from the audience. But when the show hit a lull at the mid-point, it was, unpredictably, the new "Monkey to Man," not the can't-miss "Watching the Detectives," that brought the show back to life. If the crowd occasionally seemed listless, though, the same couldn't be said for Costello and his stagemates. For a guy who's been doing this for three decades, he's admirably committed to his intention, declared earlier that day at the convention center, not to become an oldies act. His voice, which was a somewhat tentative instrument even when he was a young man, has taken on a surprising strength. Having gotten a lot of ill-advised crooning out of his system in the '90s, he's turned bracingly aggressive with his phrasing, which can veer from behind the beat to a Dylan-esque rush of words to a hoarse shout that would hold its own in front of a metal band.
The band was just as assertive, though less fluid — they hammered at almost every song as if it was "Pump It Up," as if they had decided to turn themselves into a Little Band of Concrete. This proved wearying after an hour or so, and you half suspected that they were trying so hard because the new songs, for the most part, aren't as good as the old ones. But give them credit — well after 1 a.m., when plenty of bands would be shutting down, Costello and the Imposters revved the crowd back up with a breathless near-medley of covers, old faves and new songs. They probably didn't convince anyone that The Delivery Man is another Get Happy!!, but they probably convinced everyone that they might have another Get Happy!! in them.