Elvis Costello took the Rams Head Live stage Sunday night in a big white cowboy hat, a black-and-peach cowboy shirt, orange-tinted glasses, and a baggy black suit; soon the hat was set aside to reveal the fast-receding hairline and unshaven jowls of a 50-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. But this was a night when the string quartets and Burt Bacharach collaborations were put away for a return to the garage-rock, R&B, and hillbilly roots that first fueled this prolific Londoner. This was a night when the singer had an extra edge on his performance and a responsive audience that sharpened that edge even more.
The show began with a strong, solo-acoustic version of "Radio Sweetheart." Many entertainers have to beg and wheedle to get audiences to sing along, but Sunday in Baltimore, Costello had merely to pause and nod, and the crowd started singing the title line back at him. And when he segued into Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," the crowd echoed that song's "di-di-di-dit-dit, di-dit-di-di" refrain as well.
Costello explained that his regular band, the Impostors (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas, and Davey Faragher), was on hiatus while Nieve was in London recording his new opera. Instead he was playing with a temporary band, the Pick-Ups, which featured Thomas, Faragher, and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo. Before Hidalgo appeared, however, the trio ripped through 10 songs on their own, including blistering versions of such early assaults as "Radio Radio" and "Watching the Detectives."
Hidalgo, who is as self-effacing as Costello is in-your-face, is an intoxicating high-tenor singer and lead guitarist, and he displayed both skills on Los Lobos' "Mas y Mas" and the Grateful Dead's "Bertha." Hidalgo sang duets with his host on Los Lobos' "Just a Matter of Time" and on Costello's "American Without Tears," and lent fluttery button accordion to "The Delivery Man" and droning fiddle to "Scarlet Tide." But mostly his Telecaster added concise fill and fluid solos to songs such as the rockabilly medley of "Mystery Dance" and Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)."
After the comic recitation of Dave Bartholomew's "The Monkey Speaks His Mind," which climaxed in another call-and-response sing-along with the crowd, Costello slowed down for a heartfelt version of "Alison," capturing the song's affection as well as its anger, and then segued into "Suspicious Minds" by his namesake Presley. The former Declan McManus seems more at ease with his chosen stage name; the title track from his latest album, The Delivery Man, describes an unlikely prospect who embraces the Elvis persona.
Three songs later, Costello sang "The Heart of the City" by his first producer, Nick Lowe, and segued from there into Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." If you ever wondered where that song's tremendous power comes from, all you had to do was glance over at Pete Thomas, gray now but as long and lean as ever, who was pummeling his drums with a combination of rolls and 4/4 patterns. The show was already more than two hours and 30 songs old, but Costello rode Thomas' momentum like a man possessed, shouting the title line again and again with the crowd.