Singing together into a single microphone bluegrass style, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris made the Ravinia Festival on Wednesday night feel like Sun Studios circa 1954 as they galloped through "Mystery Train," one of the songs that the other Elvis recorded at the birth of rock and roll.
The moment was an implicit tribute both to Costello's namesake and the music of the southern United States, a cornerstone of Costello's own songs that the British New Wave veteran has recently embraced with fresh enthusiasm. Costello and his band the Imposters recorded last year's The Delivery Man CD in and about the South, yielding the best record in the last 20 years of Costello's three-decades-and-counting career.
Whether it's due to his musical sources or his recent marriage to the significantly younger Diana Krall, the 50-year-old Costello clearly is rejuvenated. His epic three-hour performance for a capacity crowd was as energetic as his show at the Auditorium Theatre in April, while also being more focused.
The centerpiece of the show was a long string of duets with Harris, who paired her mountain stream-pure warble with Costello's bleating and braying on country classics by Merle Haggard, George Jones, the Louvin Brothers and Jimmy Martin, and a few of Costello's own like-minded songs ("Indoor Fireworks," "Heart-Shaped Bruise").
Given Harris' iconic stature in country music, she deserved more than the handful of solos she performed, but she made the most of them, turning in a rip-roaring "Luxury Liner" and elegiac "Pancho and Lefty." Although she's one of music's great duet singers, the 58-year-old Alabama native and Costello didn't always mesh, in part because her microphone was under-amplified.
At their best, though, the music was glorious, as Harris swathed Costello's wounded melodies like a gauze, particularly as they soared heavenward on "Wild Horses" in tribute to her early career mentor, the late Gram Parsons.
The mix of songs illustrated how much Costello has always been indebted to country music for its themes of betrayal and the bottle, its mix of stark fatalism and naked emotion, and above all its pure songwriting craft. Though he clearly loves the red states' music, he's just as clearly angered by their conservative culture and politics, as he finished his encores with the anti-war anthems "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "The Scarlet Tide."
There was no such ambivalence in the torrid rock music Costello and the Imposters performed to open and close his set as they mixed garage rock frenzy with old pro's finesse.
By the end, the aisles of normally staid Ravinia had become a dance party, and as Costello and Harris sang Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," they weren't looking to the future, they were summing up the night.