It can be a bit worrying when you hear that a singer cancelled his previous show due to a throat infection when you're headed to his concert the following night. In the case of Elvis Costello on Saturday, the news also triggered thoughts of his recent cancer scare, when he cancelled July dates to recover from surgery to remove a small malignancy.
But the 64-year-old British pop craftsman dashed such concerns about his health by rocking and serenading the Boch Center Wang Theatre for a hearty two and a half hours with his band the Imposters. Costello apologized to any fans who had tried to see him in Connecticut on Friday, blaming "rough edges" in his voice, but he sounded fine at the Wang, a tad weathered yet uncompromised.
Costello began the 26-song set with the vim and vigor of "This Year's Girl" (from his late '70s launch as a new-wave punk) and "Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?" – lashing and lifting his electric guitar before dropping into "Clubland," where he laced distorted jazz chords over Steve Nieve's tinkling grand piano. Then Costello gave a shout-out to fans who saw him at the Paradise or the Orpheum back in the day. And if anyone doubted his familiarity with Boston music history, when people later shouted seeming requests, Costello followed a quip that "We don't know any songs by the Cars" with "We know a couple by the Real Kids."
But the middle of the show was instead devoted largely to songs from the stylish, month-old Look Now, Costello's first album in a decade with the Imposters, which sport bassist Davey Faragher and old Attractions mates Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas. "Don't Look Now" served an initial showcase for Elvis the crooner in a duet with Nieve, whose piano centered a two-level keyboard spread. "Photographs Can Lie," a song about a woman's reflection on her cheating father, teased with lyrics from "The Look of Love" in a nod to its musical collaborator Burt Bacharach. And when Costello threw in older songs, he kept close to a subdued tone — and dug deep with "I'll Wear it Proudly" from 1986's Americana precursor King of America.
Costello swung harder to nostalgia with early favorite "Watching the Detectives," which cast him in eerie green light before he broke into spectral howls on guitar opposite Thomas' cracking snaps and slippery drum fills and Nieve's diminished icing on organ. But the New Orleans-tinged "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" followed, the singer prowling the stage and hitting high notes with a preacher-like passion. He didn't rely on the tour's two female backup singers but brought them forward for a playful "Alison" and extended "Everyday I Write the Book" to close the set.
Fans hoping Costello would pump it up with older classics got their wish in a nine-song encore, even if this Look Now and Then Tour continued to toggle between his now and then. He began the encore with 1979 hit "Accidents Will Happen," if woven as another vocal/piano duet, only to tap his new album for the wistfully devastating "Stripping Paper," about woman uncovering the history of a failed relationship through wallpaper removal. The new "Suspect My Tears" injected a soul-music feel, and oldies "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea," "Pump it Up" and finale "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" finished covering the upbeat bases.
Yet the highpoint of the encore – and night – was arguably "I Want You," a dark tale of romantic deception and desire from his 1986 Attractions album Blood & Chocolate that began surprisingly even-toned before building to its brooding peak. "Go on and hurt me," Costello intoned, tensely chopping at his guitar. "I want to know how he pleases you."
Pathos serves Costello well, both in his Brill Building-styled newer songcraft and the heart of his post-punk oeuvre – and any edges in his throat only accented it.