He's the son of a bandleader and has the same name as the king of rock 'n' roll, and that only begins to describe Elvis Costello.
From the knock-kneed, attitude-heavy British punk who led the Attractions, to the bearded, brooding solo artist of the early '90s, to the folk poet he is today, Costello has had many personas during his 25-year career. Connecting them all is an ability to write songs made for pub pianos, grand halls and more daring rock radio.
Costello debuted his latest incarnation, leader of a versatile, small ensemble called the Imposters, at the Verizon Wireless Theater on Monday.
In a two-hour set with 26 songs, Costello showed a new fascination with guitar jams packed with reverb and vibrating tremolo. Backed by a trio featuring keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas — both original Attractions — and bassist Davey Faragher, Costello experimented with neo-jazz improvisations and massive rock blasts.
Opening with "I Hope You're Happy Now" from the hard-rocking mid-'80s Blood & Chocolate, Costello wrangled more decibels out of his electric guitar in a few notes than he did on his entire acoustic tour three years ago. It was followed with the clever, blistering "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" from the new album, When I Was Cruel.
The decision to place these songs next to each other was not arbitrary. It allowed the punk still inside the 40ish Costello to sneer "I'm baaack."
Three-fourths of the original Attractions who created ragged early favorites "Pump It Up" and "Radio Radio" were present, but they are not the same artists. Once a fan's band that got by on Costello's personality, the Imposters are now a musician's band. They choose songs based on technical merit, not where they might place on the charts.
Those hoping for a greatest-hits jukebox of Costello's most celebrated singles ("Oliver's Army," "Everyday I Write the Book") went home sorely disappointed. There were a few hits sprinkled in, like "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" and "Pump It Up." Their inclusion worked with the big-boom theme Costello concocted.
Other well-known selections took on new forms. The reggaelike beat pacing "Watching the Detectives" was interrupted with crunching guitars and Nieve's orchestra of faux xylophone and theremin tones.
Early ballad "Alison" was turned into a medley of similarly minded songs once sung by that other Elvis: "He'll Have to Go" and "Suspicious Minds." "Clubland" was renewed with a sexy bossa nova beat.
This Costello show was definitely for the longtime fan, the cultist who knows the words to every song and has been waiting decades to hear "Little Triggers" and "Riot Act" live.
Hope they were cherished. Once Costello changes directions again or returns to quieter folk songwriting, they may not be on a set list again.
Aside from bringing young Rushmore star and drummer Jason Schwartzman back to Houston (the Wes Anderson film was partially filmed at St. John's School), opening band Phantom Planet served as a primer for early Costello and Attractions garage rock.
The group celebrated its final days on the tour with its own encore of "Pump It Up" featuring Imposters drummer Thomas thumping on a second kit right behind Schwartzman. It was interesting considering the actor is the only member of this young band who has a chance of taking on as many roles as Costello has.