In a musical career marked by uncompromising insistence on taking liberties, Elvis Costello has seldom disappointed, yet almost always surprised his loyal following. Tuesday night's two-hour performance at the sold-out Austin Opera House offered the 1,700 in attendance Costello's latest evolutionary stage, an uneven but highly workable blend of Southern rhythm and blues, country wit and solo acoustic pop ballads.
Austin was stop No. 4 on Elvis Costello's five-city U.S. tour of the South with his latest band, the Confederates South of the Mason Dixon Line. Composed of largely unknown or forgotten legends, along with longtime associate Nick Lowe on rhythm guitar, Costello was completely at ease, as much as possible for a man whose onstage persona mimics a wound-up spring waiting to explode. Lead guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist Benmont Tench, collectively representing acts such as Delaney & Bonnie, Derek and the Dominoes, and Tom Petty, made a more than acceptable alternative to his usual bandmates, the Attractions.
Costello's choice of lead guitarist illuminates his love for American music. Burton's mastery lies in understatement. He has defined the economic but soulful use of the Telecaster throughout a career that includes backing the likes of Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and a young singing truckdriver from Tupelo, Miss. His recent association with Costello is a continuation of his rich but unnoticed guitar work. From his southern-style boogie shuffle treatment of Costello's Uncomplicated to the country licks of "Leave My Kitten Alone," Burton showed why his talent sets standards rather than following them.
With such an enormous catalog of songs, everyone has a favorite. The omission of any cuts from Trust, Get Happy, and his 1984 masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom surely left some disappointed. Nevertheless, the show offered an intriguing collection of familiar tunes ("Mystery Dance," "Alison," "Pump It Up") oddities (such as the B-side of an import single, "Heathen Town") and covers (such as Mose Allison's "Your Mind Is on Vacation") that accentuated the strengths of the Confederates as well Costello's own predilection for reinterpreting his own material.
Costello also premiered several new songs, including his eloquent, biting treatment of the death penalty, "Let Them Dangle." When Costello waxes politic, few are safe. This song tells the story of Bentley, an innocent man sent to his death by the state. It's a forceful plea about people who are killed when human fallibility combines with a barbaric notion of justice. The multi-layered ballad found Costello in powerful vocal form.