When Laura Cantrell says she's going on at 7:30 sharp, she means it. The charming chanteuse started her October 9 set at the Midland Theatre right on time, with an abrupt, intro-free ditty that made it seem as if she'd timed her entrance to the second.
If only fans of headliner Elvis Costello could have been so punctual. The audience filed in loudly and obtrusively throughout Cantrell's performance and even during Costello's opening songs, disrupting the pitch-dark venue's reverent ambience. Undaunted, Cantrell unpacked her twangy voice and tangy hooks, and country-craving listeners found themselves, to borrow a phrase from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Nashville native, "pleased as punch."
Costello appeared with much more fanfare, including an alarmingly yodeled version of the Lone Ranger theme song and a seizure-inducing light show. Just in case the audience remained unaroused, Costello and his backing trio, the Impostors, pumped it up, pushing paces past their breaking point and letting electric guitar dominate the proceedings. Playing nearly every track from this year's impressive When I Was Cruel, the band displayed a fresh sense of passion that hits tours just can't inspire. Meet the new Costello, same as the old, old Costello: plugged in, pissed off and profoundly powerful.
After he'd voiced all his Cruel intentions, though, Costello slowed to a crawl during encore renditions of old hats such as "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and "Watching the Detectives." Some innovations thrilled, such as a nod to the other Elvis' "Suspicious Minds"; other alterations, such as lengthy, Asia-style keyboard solos, lagged.
But all was forgiven when Costello concluded the concert with "I Want You," his guitar occasionally erupting as he narrated a dizzying emotional downfall. Keyboards appeared like ghostly apparitions, haunting briefly with miserable melodies. Costello's guitar erupted occasionally, voicing violent distress until uneasy calm was quickly restored. Most impressive, though, was Costello's voice, which boomed with amazing potency even when he took a few steps away from the microphone to belt the tune's final lines. Noisy crowds, skeptics who dismissed his past few efforts — Costello still shouts them all down, even without the aid of amplification.