Rock legend Elvis Costello must have surely passed through Knoxville during the past 25 years. He was, however, always on the way to a show somewhere else.
Thursday night Costello performed in Knoxville for the first time and tried to make up for the quarter-century slight. In a little over two hours Costello performed 30 songs that stretched through his entire career — from his earliest songs, including the fun "Mystery Dance," to riveting numbers from his latest album The Delivery Man. He even tossed in a spooky version of "Knoxville Girl" in recognition of his surroundings.
The crowd at the sold-out Tennessee Theatre was a mixture of baby boomers, generation Xers and a few who must've been from generation Y. Costello seemed happy to deliver material from wherever an audience member stepped into his time line. After a pleasant set by Tift Merritt, Costello and his band the Imposters performed a relaxed rendition of "(Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."
The Imposters are nearly Costello's original band the Attractions. Keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Bruce Thomas remain with the act. Only bassist Pete Thomas was absent, replaced by ace player Davey Farragher.
Early highlights included "Hidden Shame," which Costello originally wrote for Johnny Cash, an impassioned version of "The Delivery Man" song "Either Side of the Same Town," providing fine evidence that Costello is still a lyrical master.
It's interesting that Costello's early image seemed to be that of a man who was crass and a little aloof. Costello was the brainy punk or the nerviest of the new wave. What he actually was was a great pop and rock singer-songwriter with too much talent to be put in a box. On Thursday he came off as a warm performer anxious to give fans what they wanted with things they might not have known they wanted added in.
He performed his lesser known "When I Was Cruel," segueing into the favorite "Watching the Detectives." The fine new rocker "Monkey to Man" led into the vintage "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" and "High Fidelity." More favorites followed, including "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" "Radio, Radio" and "Pump It Up."
The sweet 'Alison" was played with a little added fun — Costello inserting the lyrics to a hit by the other Elvis ("Suspicious Minds") into the song.
Costello's final number was a gorgeous rendition of the mournful "The Scarlet Tide" (performed by Alison Krauss in the movie Cold Mountain). Costello took a moment to step to the edge of the stage and sing un-amplified while the audience listened in hushed silence.
It was a beautiful end to an excellent show. Maybe the next time Costello's passing through, he'll decide to spend the night again.