Elvis Costello's a bloody brilliant live performer. And thank god for that.
Over the past 20 years, EC's catalog has grown ridiculously cluttered. On nearly two dozen albums, he's traipsed through esoteric opera, lounge jazz, rootsy r & b, bluegrass and straight rock records with collaborators and guests galore. It's become hard to get excited for his new records because you never know which Costello you'll get.
But live, the man slices right through the clutter.
Last night at a packed Orpheum, Costello debuted his latest backing band, the Sugarcanes. Stuffed with notables including country ace Jim Lauderdale and dobro Jedi Jerry Douglas, the band is firmly grounded in bluegrass. But the Grand Ole Opry twist only served as a fresh frame for Costello's stellar writing and fully committed concert persona.
The tunes from new album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane had more punch live than the slightly flat recorded versions. The dark, noir vibe of "My All Time Doll" got a spike of spooky dobro. Costello and Lauderdale pushed the whiskey harmonies of "Down Among the Wines and Spirits" out front. And "Sulphur to Sugarcane," one of the half a dozen encores, became a legit, drunken honky-tonk shuffle.
Then there were the choice covers. Letting us know just what's been inspiring EC, the music encyclopedia charged through "Mystery Train" (an early Sun-side for the other Elvis), Merle Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down" and a pickin' party take on "Friend of the Devil."
But it was the storied songs deftly twisted to fit Costello's new Americana aesthetic that popped. Dressing classics in fiddles and accordion, upright bass and mandolin only shone a spotlight on Costello's masterful songwriting and delivery.
A couple naturally fit the vibe – the tunes pulled from King of America especially. But others were completely remade. The band turned "The Delivery Man" into a chaotic, chunky swamp lit by Costello's cries and Douglas' buzzing dobro fills. Then the septet rewrote the melody of "Everyday I Write Book," slowing the tempo and giving the typically jaunty tune languid doses of space.
Finally came the favorites: "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" done as a call-and-response singalong, a hauntingly spare "Alison," and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" with another brilliant harmony vocal by Lauderdale.
Give us a gangsta rap disc next or a set of sambas or an album of speed metal – as long as you remain a great live act who curates great setlists, we'll stick with you, Elvis.