Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris rose to prominence as members of very different musical outsiders' movements, but both have embraced such diverse styles over the courses of their long careers that they share plenty of common ground. This summer the two are touring together as a collaborative stage presence, a union that yielded more than its share of marvelous moments and dazzling synergies when it was on display Friday night at the Chevrolet Theatre in Wallingford.
Costello opened the show with his three-piece band, The Imposters, in tow, his trademark vocal bleat full of urgency alongside Steve Nieve's rippling keyboards in the sugary rock of "Temptation." Costello's tasteful yet vigorous electric guitar work added blues-edged texture to "Clown Strike," and did not disrupt melodic flow as he shoehorned a riff into the charging "(I Don't Wanna) Go to Chelsea."
When Harris emerged after Costello's first 10 songs to join him for a duet on Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone," she effectively ushered in an entirely different show. Gone was the hard-rocking vibe on which Costello feasted early, and a much mellower tone settled into its place. Costello leaned on the nearly supple soft end of his voice as he snuggled up to Harris' ethereal, high-end vocal quaver within the piano-dappled country number "Sleepless Nights."
In addition to bonding the complementary pieces of their styles many times, each artist fronted memorable tunes within the show's soft middle, including Costello's understated, and, relaxed, but feisty, "Indoor Fireworks," and an entrancing turn by Harris on her own "Red Dirt Girl." Harris soared atop the sprightly ramble of "Luxury Liner," which included a strong bit of electric guitar soloing by guest multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, who put his impressive stamp on several tunes throughout the show.
Harris exited after 10 tunes and Costello immediately turned in one of the show's highlights, a blues-trimmed saunter through the savvy, evocative "The Delivery Man" that moved seamlessly into the stark, dramatic climax of "The Butcher's Boy." His electric guitar sharpened the edges of the acidic "Dust," and his march through "Watching the Detectives" set an agreeable hook with its minimalist reggae backbeat. He drew close to punk-style energy as he dove into a series of hearty grooves, among them "Mystery Dance" and the rollicking, extended "Pump it Up."
The show was already long by the time Costello closed it with a sweet segue from the quirky ballad "Alison" to the soulful environs of "Suspicious Minds," and a nine-song encore stretched it to just a few minutes shy of three hours in all. Harris appeared throughout the rangy encore, joining Costello for a deliberate, pretty alliance on a cover of "Wild Horses" and making her own sparks as she gave a graceful telling of "Pancho and Lefty" with fluttering mandolin in tow. She appeared right at home during a foray back into Costello's rock underpinnings as they teamed for "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" and, given both artists' activist histories, a closing rendition of the politically charged "The Scarlet Tide" made for a finale that was equal parts appropriate and impressive.