I don’t care if I ever see Elvis Costello in concert again.
No, not because of some huffiness, but because the performance that he and the Imposters put on at a sold-out Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor was so good that it is the kind of thing that can stand as a defining one. Having seen Costello several times through the years, I must admit that I wasn’t particularly interested in attending this concert. In recent years, either solo or with the band, it almost seemed as if he was always experimenting more than performing. This, one might argue, is what has made the body of work during the past 30 or so years so vital and relevant. But whereas you can listen to a disc and skip it or repeat it, shows are real-time events, and even though the price Costello commands is nowhere near some of the lesser luminaries on tour who demand astronomical sums, the commitment to attend a concert—financial and otherwise—for me overcomes, by and large, the desire to walk out. As good a song as “Allison” may be, how many more times do you need to hear it performed live? In my case, it seems, at least once more (with the other Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” layered in before the final repetitions of the ironic phrase, “My aim is true.”)
The band came to play and so they did, with focus, purpose and anarchic precision. From the opening pummeling of “Radio, Radio” to an acoustically centered “The Scarlet Tide,” which Costello wrote for the film version of Cold Mountain (a rendition including Costello standing way from the mike, to the edge of stage left, singing out with a voice unmodulated by anything but talent and ability) that completed the show more than two hours later, the orchestration of songs that the quartet threw off like so many sparks was impressive in breadth and scope.
This was straight-ahead rock and roll, with a respectful nod to the most famous quartet in the genre’s history: an unaffected cover of The Beatles’ (by way of the Miracles) “You Really Got a Hold On Me”: Costello and the Imposters, in effect have earned the right (although they’re not, comparatively speaking, going to fill stadia) to honestly play that music (even though it was near the end of the frenetic show, when one could imagine that the band was more than ready to chuck it in, even keyboardist extraordinaire Steve Nieve leaned into a microphone that had thentofore only been used for instrumental purposes and joined in on the chorus: this is evidently music that the band grew up with and the spirit was infectious).
The band has elevated its not inconsiderable skills in the year or so since I last saw it perform. Nieve goes from classical sounds to country with nary a pause; he works with his instruments almost as though they are “instruments” in a scientific sense: an adjustment here, a tweak there, and voila! Life. Pete Thomas was able to keep the beat up for so many up-tempo numbers that it is a wonder he didn’t fall off his stool about halfway through in a sweat-drenched stupor. No, the beat went on. Bass player and backup vocalist Davey Farargher deserves high praise for his vocal abilities. What Costello lacks in range and timbre, Faragher unobtrusively provides. And, finally, Costello himself. This time he wasn’t learning in public things he can do with his guitar. He wasn’t the vaudevillian showman, keeping up a winsome patter. No, he played and sang and did them well. Perhaps his ongoing association with people in the jazz world, where your chops count more than your shtick, has had an effect.
So, if I never see them again, fine. This is a memory that I prefer not to have marred by something less exquisite.