Elvis Costello must've left the taxi meter ticking Sunday outside the Auditorium Theatre. He barely paused to catch a breath as he strung nearly three dozen songs together and left without an encore.
That said, this two-hour-plus ride on the Costello roller coaster was a more than generous performance. With his excellent band, the Imposters, Costello was in amphetamine power-pop mode, playing even a honky-tonk weeper like Merle Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down" at triple speed. It was a throwback to the British singer's new-wave era, when words somersaulted across dense, speedy arrangements that conveyed the restlessness and anxiety of younger men deprived of sex, sympathy and cash.
No longer playing the angry-young-man role the media once cast him for, Costello now traffics in craftsmanship, a brilliant and highly self-aware dilettante who has dabbled in writing for a string quartet, an opera singer, a jazz chanteuse and Burt Bacharach, among others. But his excesses have found a comfortable home with the Imposters, a deft pop combo that knows how to decorate a song without smothering it.
Costello's every vocal line was answered by a lick and a tickle from Steve Nieve's keyboards. It was like watching two hustlers striving to impress the same girl, their complementary lines at times spilling over into playful games of one-upmanship.
The singer couldn't resist arching an eyebrow as he turned a clever couplet or dropped a hip musical allusion. He knows his musical history and he wants the audience to know it too, as he inserted a guitar lick from West Side Story into the middle of "Clubland," transformed a Smokey Robinson chord progression into the soul ballad "Rocking Horse Road" and morphed his "Alison" into a hit by another Elvis, "Suspicious Minds."
Nieve had an answer for everything, and more. "Needle Time" might've been a fairly conventional blues lament, but the keyboardist's orchestrations turned it into something surreal. He got to indulge his inner Bacharach with the florid piano balladry of "In the Darkest Place" and "Poisoned Rose," and channeled Jerry Lee Lewis' double-fisted attack on "Mystery Dance." When his armada of keyboards wasn't enough, he turned to a theremin to bring the sci-fi weirdness to "Bedlam," and melodica to conjure a country feel on "Our Little Angel."
Drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher kept the busy duo from losing momentum. They found a fifth gear as the show came to a close, including thrilling takes on Get Happy! gems "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" and "High Fidelity." Costello wound things down with a rustic ballad, "Scarlet Tide," doing a Tony Bennett impression as he sang a verse without the aid of a microphone.
The crowd ate up this little piece of theater, and cheered for more. But by then, Elvis had left the building.