The frequent knock on Elvis Costello is that he's a dilettante, meaning that he dabbles in so many styles that you can't pin the guy down.
Just in the past couple of years he has released an orchestral work (Il Sogno), a Southern-flavored rock album (The Delivery Man), a live big-band jazz album (My Flame Turns Blue) and, out last week, a collaboration with New Orleans songwriter/pianist/producer Allen Toussaint (The River in Reverse).
He also toured with country singer Emmylou Harris last year, and he's been working on an opera based on the life of Hans Christian Andersen.
Who can keep track of all of that? Couldn't someone just send us e-mails alerting us when he releases real albums — that is, the rock ones?
That's the negative way to look at it.
The positive way is this:
I just saw him for the twentysomethingth time — playing at Ravinia with Toussaint, the Crescent City Horns, Toussaint's guitarist Anthony "AB" Brown and Costello's own backing band the Imposters — and he's pushed himself at each concert.
I first caught him on the Imperial Bedroom tour in 1982 — and I should've seen him before that — and 24 years later he has yet to play the nostalgia card, requisite performances of "Alison" and "Pump It Up" notwithstanding. You see Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones these days, and they'll flog their new albums briefly, then pretend as if the past 25 years haven't existed. They take the great leap backward to the songs that made them famous.
It's a sure sign that the B-52's will do roughly the same when the flyer for their Aug. 25 Ravinia appearance reads, "America's greatest party band returns to play your favorites, bringing a unique blend of retro dance-rock that transcends generations."
Costello did open with "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and included fan favorites "Pump It Up," "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives," but he and Toussaint also played the entire new album (a combination of material they wrote after Hurricane Katrina devastated Toussaint's hometown and older, relatively obscure Toussaint compositions that feel freshly relevant) plus deep catalog cuts from both songwriters.
I don't remember ever seeing Costello play "Tears Before Bedtime," even on the Imperial Bedroom tour (I tried Google-ing for a setlist from his 1982 Alpine Valley show, but even the Internet has its limits), and it's worth noting that Costello preferred to revisit two songs from The Delivery Man and another from 2002's When I Was Cruel ("Dust") rather than to trot out "Veronica" or "Everyday I Write the Book."
Plus, almost all of the Costello songs had been rearranged with new charts written by Toussaint. Dissonant horns and a trombone solo gave "Watching the Detectives" a crazed '50s jazz feel, "Poisoned Rose" built to a climax that eclipsed the King of America version, and "Clown Strike" swung like it only dreamed of doing in its Brutal Youth incarnation.
Costello's tinkering with his older songs is, in a way, reminiscent of Bob Dylan, whose restlessness has led to an even longer career of relevancy (albeit with some significant stretches of "Huh?"). But Costello's reinterpretations have never sounded as haphazard as Dylan's often have — that's for better or worse; Costello gives the impression that he could give a dissertation on the thinking behind his every little move.
The main point is that if you see Costello or Dylan or Neil Young today, you know you're going to experience something that's about now, not yesterday.
And in Costello's case at least, you know you'll get your money's worth.
The stats on Sunday night's show: 34 songs, 2 hours and 45 minutes, including three encores.
Costello was in soul mode and rock mode — two of my favorites for him — even if Ravinia's sound system seems wired only for quiet mode: The show sounded great when Toussaint played solo and tinny as an AM radio when the Imposters were at full throttle.
Still, Costello's longtime bandmates (with a more soul-oriented bassist than his Attractions of yore) may never have cut such indelible grooves, with an assist, of course, from Toussaint's incredibly nimble playing, the Crescent City Horns' sassy punctuation and the evening's unsung MVP, guitarist Brown, who played in the horn section's shadow but never failed to supply a scratchy rhythm or concise lick to kick each song up a notch.
I can't say I've enjoyed each of Costello's stylistic incarnations equally (and his 2002 thoroughly wrongheaded, profanity-laced on-stage rant against WXRT's very affable Lin Brehmer — my 'XRT newscaster wife's on-air partner — got him barred from my household's stereo system).
But by keeping himself constantly stimulated in so many ways, he has managed to continue moving forward when so many others have taken to circling their former selves or stopping altogether. Yes, you need a map to keep track of all of the places he's visited, but he's still on the same journey as when I first saw him.
I wish I could say the same about most of my other favorite performers.
Because there must be at least one other reader as geeky about this stuff as I am, here's the complete setlist, as scrawled on a Ravinia flyer. If I got anything wrong, please let me know.
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding
Monkey to Man
On Your Way Down
A Certain Girl (Toussaint lead vocals)
Tears, Tears and More Tears
Tears Before Bedtime
Broken Promise Land
Freedom for the Stallion
The River in Reverse
Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?
(Toussaint lead vocals)
Nearer to You
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
Watching the Detectives
I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down
Pump It Up
Professor Longhair medley (I'm pretty sure),
including Tipitina (Toussaint solo at the grand piano)
Ascension Day (just Toussaint and Costello)
What Do You Want the Girl to Do (T&C)
Working in a Coal Mine
All These Things
That's How You Got Killed Before
(Dave Bartholomew song)
Yes We Can Can
The Greatest Love
Fortune Teller (oldie covered by the Rolling Stones
and the Who in their early years)
The Sharpest Thorn