Elvis Costello came into the Chicago Theatre with a heavy heart Thursday night. He'd just gotten word that a friend and musical associate, Derek Bell of the Chieftains, had died in Phoenix earlier in the day.
To make matters worse, a recording of Bell playing the harp that he'd selected as his walk-on music had been preempted by his introduction by WXRT-FM morning man Lin Brehmer — or "the f----- from 'XRT," as Costello later referred to him. Biting the hand that plays him loyally on radio-radio, Costello dedicated a tune to his nemesis: "You Little Fool."
It was good to see that at age 48, the former Declan McManus can still summon that famous righteous anger, however misaimed it might have been on this occasion. Collaborations with the likes of non-rockers Burt Bacharach, Michael Tilson Thomas and Anne-Sofie von Otter may have blunted his edge in the minds of old-time fans, but Costello is rocking hard again, with the help of three topnotch sidemen known collectively as the Imposters.
The English singer-songwriter-guitarist has always been a high-maintenance performer, but there's a big payoff for putting up with him. His interplay with versatile keyboardist Steve Nieve has been honed to perfection since the early days of the Attractions in the mid-'70s, with Costello's edgy, reverb- and tremelo-laden licks augmented by Nieve's intricate tickling of the ivories — or Costello's delicately strummed acoustic guitar accented by Nieve's fiery synthesizer lines.
And as a vocalist, Costello brings a timeless elegance to ballads such as "Man Out of Time" and "Love Field" or a love song like his cover of the Miracles' "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." Then he can flat-out shout through power pop like "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" from "When I Was Cruel," his new disc; "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," and "Radio Radio" and leave the impression that he could carry on for five hours without needing to take a deep breath.
Costello seethed during the entire set, delivering a solid career retrospective that tilted toward his post-1980s material. He bid adieu after an hour and 20 minutes, initially failing to explain the real reason that he was upset.
He came back for what seemed like one obligatory encore, Nick Lowe's anthem for the ages, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." That's when the fun started for Costello — and for the sold-out house full of admirers. He followed with "Shipbuilding," before telling the audience, "Shut the f--- up for a minute" and announcing Bell's death.
Costello, who has long shown an interest in the traditional Irish music for which the Chieftains are famous, had recorded with the 66-year-old Irishman on a couple of occasions. He sang his farewell to his old friend with a haunting Irish elegy. You could have heard a pin drop, and Costello appeared gratified by the crowd's respect.
There seemed no more eloquent way to say goodnight, but the house lights stayed dim, and the Imposters came back for another round of encores. Costello introduced "My Mood Swings" by describing the scene in The Big Lebowski with Jeff Bridges listening to the tune on headphones in the dentist's chair.
We had seen enough biting cynicism and mood swings from the main attraction — or imposter? — by that point to justify a year of psychotherapy, but they weren't over. Dipping into his gold vault, Costello pulled out "Alison," which he segued into "Suspicious Minds." Elvis did Elvis — very effectively. The band blasted into "Pump It Up," the ultimate jump-up-and-down rocker, finally wrapping up with "I Want You," which is about as close as Costello comes to reaching out to his fans.
Costello's emotional high-wire act, in the end, had lasted a generous two hours, with his promise of followup visits to Chicago every four months. In fact, this was his third local appearance since April.
Brehmer, who might deserve credit for inadvertently inspiring such an impassioned performance, was understandably shaken Friday, explaining, "Does he really think I'd sucker-punched a couple of bouncers and walked onstage? I got a total of 18 seconds with Milo, his road manager, who said nothing about any tribute. And it was his crew that sent me out onstage. I was taken aback, and I was sitting there thinking that I had taken my wife to her first concert in two months, gotten a baby-sitter, and she gets to hear me called a liar onstage.
"During his 'loving musical tribute' to his dead friend, his crew was banging on drums, banging on guitars and testing lines. Nobody onstage, his crew or the people from Jam had been informed of this."