DENVER — It's reassuring to see a performer fast approaching his third decade of music who can not only produce but perform with the same veracity, energy and chameleonic personality as he did as an angry young man — with wholly listenable results.
Rocker Elvis Costello, once the horn-rimmed darling of the New Wave movement, has certainly matured over those many years. But as the near-capacity crowd at the Fillmore Auditorium discovered Sunday, time has only served to sharpen rock's most wry documentarian of the human condition and mix more musical timbres and tonality than the thousand or so pop performers who've followed him.
Mixing ample selections from his newest CD, When I Was Cruel, with a powerful and captivating set list drawn from nearly every portion of his career, Costello and the Imposters (his stripped-down three-piece backing band, including his old musical counterparts Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve) filled two hours with absolutely rockin' music. And, thankfully, none of the strange Burt Bacharach-styled lounge-y diversions that have sidetracked Costello for the last half-decade or so.
Old-time fans got their fill with the hits: "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," "Radio, Radio," "Watching the Detectives," "Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes" and "No Action." Costello also let his roots show, as he gently turned "Alison" into a Motown medley that included "Tracks of My Tears" and "Tears of a Clown."
But the evening's most pointed moments came in the moments taken from his new release, accurately described as his first loud album in years. The haunting "When I Was Cruel No. 2" took on new meaning when Costello explained the song detailed the life of a money-hungry tyrant sporting "a bad toupee — and even the toupee has dandruff;" he and the band also roared through the album's rock-styled singles, "45" and "Tear Off Your Own Head."
Costello included gems from his enigmatic early '80s days, such as "Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind?" and a marvelously manic version of "Beyond Belief" (from 1982's Imperial Bedroom).
While Costello seemed a bit tightly wound at the show's outset, occasionally drifting in and out of time with his own tunes, things tightened — and the notoriously ironic performer lightened the mood considerably with several call-and-response choruses with the audience.
Returning to the stage for two encores, Costello included Cruel's "Alibi" and a thunderous rendition of "Pump It Up," concluding with the slow, burning emotion of "I Want You." A totally satisfying night of pop perfection.