It's been about 30 years since Elvis Costello released his first album, "My Aim Is True," a prickly pastiche of pop classicism, punk ferocity, and literary wit. Since then, he's become a genre-spanning Renaissance man, but Costello is marking the career milestone with a handful of reissues and a 10-city tour that stopped on Tuesday at Avalon, where Costello and his crack cohorts the Imposters revisited the back catalog.
Dressed shades to shoes in black, Costello opened the show with "Welcome to the Working Week," leading a packed house of middle-age fans to believe this would be a hits-saturated set. But Costello wouldn't get around to another blockbuster — "Watching the Detectives" — until the show was half over, instead delivering blistering renditions of album cuts like "Shabby Doll," "The Beat," "Strict Time," and "Big Tears." Costello's voice — never a pretty instrument — has grown stronger and warmer. He sang a mournful version of "Either Side of the Same Town," a blues he wrote for soul singer Howard Tate, and burrowed into the ornate, Latin-flavored art-pop song "Clubland" with great heart.
It wasn't (yet) a fist-pumping singalong, but it was a first-rate rock show that accomplished that rare feat of fusing advanced craft and raw passion. While Costello's newer material packs a subtler punch, his energy as a performer has hardly dimmed three decades in, and the Imposters provided potent support. Longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve, who seems to be revisiting his love of prog, executed spacey flybys on the lumbering rocker "Alibi" and made liberal use of his theremin.
It would be an understatement to say Costello's show was backloaded. The set's final stretch included a glorious recasting of "Alison" as a solo acoustic ballad but otherwise unfurled at a cartoonishly hopped-up pace: "Radio Radio," "Pump It Up," a knockout cover of the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog," and a show-closing, show-stopping take on Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?"
That evergreen anthem felt still more timely thanks to a new couplet, which doubled as Costello's parting words: "Bring the boys home/ bring them back alive."