You understand rock and roll or you don't. I've been told that rock is something you outgrow, that everyone does eventually. This scares me to death, because there's something prehistoric and sexual and carnivorous that a squalling guitar does to me, and I think I'm not alone. Elvis Costello is not too old to rock.
On October 17 at the Chicago Theater, Elvis Costello and the Impostors opened with "I Hope You're Happy Now" and closed with "Almost Blue." In between, they blew everyone in the house away. Elvis Costello is a rock and roll genius: he sings perfectly and effortlessly, with a technical mastery that is unrivaled in the genre, and an emotional honesty that guts the listener absolutely and irrevocably.
The show featured a career-spanning selection of ballads, including "Shipbuilding" and "Alison," and yet was never perfunctory. The rock songs had even more power. The band seemed to be actively trying to avoid the image of the established rock act going through the motions on their classic hits. "High Fidelity," "Tear Off Your Own Head," "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," and "I Hope You're Happy Now" were delivered with an intensity that most rockers half Costello's age couldn't fake on a good day. Costello himself looked like he was actually having a good time at some points (a notion antithetical to the wry, scorned Costello persona); he threw a sing-along chorus of "You Really Got a Hold On Me" into the bridge of "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," one of the most lyrically bitter songs he played.
For most of the show, though, Costello maintained the character of his lyrics — hurt, horny, and out for blood. Every so often, between sets of two or three songs played in succession without a pause for breath, he would take a moment to call the WXRT D.J. who introduced the band "a stupid fucker." At the end of his first encore set, he explained that Derek Bell of the Chieftains had died that day, and proceeded to wail solo on a tribute song, "The Parting Glass," that had musical origins in Irish dirges. The performance, though, was born straight out of the man's gut, conceived of loss and anger. It was a devastating song, and most of the audience seemed to expect the show to end there. Instead, the band came back and did a set that included a driving-the-car-over-the-cliff-and-rocking-out-the-whole-way-down rendition of "Pump It Up," and climaxed with a desperate performance of "I Want You."
"He messed up the lyrics," a part of my head pointed out while the rest of me shuddered and stared as hard as I could at the man in the blue spotlight who was sharing his jealousy with a crowd of one. "Did you call his name out?" he howled. "Did you call his name out as he held you down?" In that song his voice and his guitar created something that every single person in that hall could inhabit. Elvis Costello is the most compelling, charismatic performer I have ever seen.
I don't intend to minimize the efforts of the Impostors (who consist of Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums, and Davey Faragher on bass). Nieve in particular was an animal on assorted keyboards and synthesizers, and the band deftly kept their footing when their frontman extended verses or sang lines out of order on "Alibi" and "I Want You." But there is nothing like Elvis Costello himself. Elvis Costello and the Impostors will be playing Mandell Hall later this quarter. See this show. See this show. You will be rocked like you never have been rocked before.