Elvis Costello is a reminder that classic country music isn't about nationality or accent or era. Costello, a British rock musician whose roots reach back to the late 1970s, understands that country isn't a genre so much as a feeling, namely longing.
At the Orpheum Theatre last night, the chameleonic Costello tried on his latest guise, that of a credible country crooner backed by some of Nashville's most distinguished pickers. Anyone expecting to pump it up with a rock show must have been surprised to see an upright bass instead of a drum kit and Costello, in a suit and tie, wearing a cross between a fedora and a straw hat.
Old country music suits Costello, who first plumbed his love of it on 1981's Almost Blue, featuring covers of songs by the likes of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones. At the Orpheum, he dusted off a few of them, including moving renditions of Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and Jones's "Color of the Blues."
The set list, in fact, was almost exclusively devoted to Costello's country catalog with a clutch of songs ("Down Among the Wines and Spirits," "Sulphur to Sugarcane") from last year's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
It wasn't quite the Grand Ole Opry, but the performance captured the good-time spirit of that album, no doubt because Costello's stellar six-piece band, dubbed the Sugarcanes, were the same musicians who played on it.
Last night marked the start of a new tour, but you never would have guessed that from the magnetic chemistry. Jim Lauderdale's high harmonies were so good they almost felt wasted, and many of the songs featured prominent licks from dobro master Jerry Douglas.
Even when they strayed outside Nashville's city limits, the songs were played through a filter of torch and twang, especially Costello's own songs. "Everyday I Write the Book" shimmered with three-part harmonies, and "Alison" blossomed into a stately country ballad.
Only on the final encore did Costello the rocker make a cameo on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," and even then it felt more like a hoedown than a call to arms.