Almost 30 years ago, Elvis Costello swept onto the pop music scene on punky energy and a flood of angry, despairing words. Yet beneath his signature snarl and roiling band, there was always a classicist.
The connections between his singular brand of rock 'n' roll and traditional blues, country, jazz and rockabilly were keenly demonstrated during a relentless two-hour performance at Nokia Theatre on Tuesday night. His latest album, The Delivery Man, is steeped in American roots music, and he juxtaposed those new songs with similarly inspired material from his vast catalog, along with the occasional cover.
Elvis' one-of-a-kind voice can carry just about any tune on its own, but Delivery Man ballads stood out ("Country Darkness," "Needle Time," "Heart Shaped Bruise," and the title cut) because they gave his conversational phrasing and way with a minimalist hook space to play.
That's not to say the rockers didn't also deliver, but especially early in the set the sound bounced around the huge hall, creating many a muddy moment. Elvis and his fine band fought through it, rarely stopping to catch their breath. He never even unbuttoned his suit, his tie remained pinned against his neck, and he only took a drink of water before the last song, a sweet, partially off-mike rendering of "The Scarlet Tide."
He often paired tunes thematically. In fact, the night hit its stride halfway through the show when the jazzy noir of "When I Was Cruel No. 2" gave way to his classic noirish rant, "Watching the Detectives." He followed that a few minutes later with the rave-up "Mystery Dance" segueing into Hank Williams' rollicking "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?"
While Elvis spent most of his time onstage pumping out music, he paused once in a while to joke with the crowd. Local references abounded. He needled the Grand Prairie setting for its nowhere-ness. During the other Elvis' "Suspicious Minds," which he performed in a medley with "Alison," he briefly mimicked the King. He also kidded that he was wearing a cowgirl outfit under his suit.
And during "Pump It Up," Steve Nieve, whose tinkling piano and gurgling organ work often took the lead parts, played a snippet of the Dallas theme.
Elvis performed some of his bitterest early songs, including "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," and he continues to mine what he once called "emotional fascism" – the muck of relationships. Without condemning him to some kind of corny maturity, his newer work does show a greater generosity toward the human foibles he once mocked.
To witness that breadth in one evening was a rare treat.