Quick: What do Loretta Lynn, The Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead and the Anthology of American Folk Music have in common? Sunday night in Cary, Elvis Costello gave them all the cover treatment during a 30-song tour de force with his new all-star bluegrass string band, the Sugarcanes.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Costello's successful and mostly seamless new record, marked the occasion for the evening. As such, he played nearly every track off the album, accompanying them with Nashville versions of older hits and a jukebox collection of eclectic covers, all the while importing his New Wave sneer into soulful, country balladry. In many ways, the concert felt more like a Folkways-meets-Nuggets compilation — Costello serving as guest curator — than the showcase of a prolific songwriter.
The open space (and, with a thin crowd of 2,000, there was plenty of it) and pitch-perfect acoustics of Koka Booth Amphitheatre proved an ideal setting for such ambitious range: Wearing a black suit and sipping from a teacup, Costello joked with the audience between tracks and encouraged his six-piece backing band with praise-laden introductions. Following his lead, the Sugarcanes weaved through decades of material, presenting finely tuned takes on a broad spectrum of musical history.
Three songs from 1977's My Aim Is True made the cut, including a rollicking version of "Blame It on Cain" that substituted syncopated picking and upright bass for a backbeat snare. A mandolin-laced treatment of "Allison" featured an additional harmony and a triumphantly strummed ending in place of the original's soft fadeout. Costello cooled the feverish number "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" to a Meters-paced strut, translating the original's guitar work into a front-and-center hook courtesy of Stuart Duncan's fiddle. Despite the absence of drums or lead electric (the closest thing was a slide guitar, played by Jerry Douglas), the band managed to preserve the originals through an entirely different idiom.
Less surprisingly, 1986's King of America — which, like Sugarcane, was produced by T-Bone Burnett and steeped in acoustic folk traditions — made several appearances throughout the night. Costello reproduced "Indoor Fireworks," "Little Palaces" and "Brilliant Mistake" with the grown-in maturity that he reached for but didn't fully inhabit 20 years ago. A straight-ahead take on "Our Little Angel" lost the nervous subtlety of the original, but Costello's voice commanded, and improved upon, King of America's ballads. It felt like the album was written for this moment, when Costello could lead a folk band with the precision and wisdom of a well-worn session veteran.
Costello tipped his hat toward other people's classics, too, from the Harry Smith-captured folk song "The Butcher's Boy," which received an Irish jig interlude, to the Velvets' "Femme Fatale," which added upbeat southern twang in place of flat notes and big-city ennui. Other cover highlights included The Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil," and Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train," written by Junior Parker and Sam Phillips.
Center stage, though, was Sugarcane, a motley assembly in and of itself, with fragments of an operetta about Hans Christian Andersen, songs for Johnny Cash, a Loretta Lynn collaboration, and an overriding obsession with unrequited love, guilt and imprisonment. Continuing with the prisoner's thoughts of "Hidden Shame," which Costello wrote for Cash, Costello debuted a new song called "The Condemned Man," which featured the line: "The Judge says, ‘Son by this time tomorrow, you won't be alive / Soon we'll be giving you 10,000 volts' / and I said, ‘Make that 25.'"
"It's not on record; you have to go to the woods to hear it," Costello told the ecstatic Cary audience. That Costello could bring a crowd of thousands to their feet to cheer on the story of a death-row inmate — let alone a Danish fairytale author, abolitionist circus leader, crooked politician and all the other characters that inhabit his most recent work — is a testament to his staying power. Even as his style shifts and influences multiply and become manifest, his words still aim true for anyone willing to listen.