When Elvis Costello first burst onto the scene in the late 1970s as a 22-year-old, he came off as a brash, angry young man with bold spectacles, immense talent and the gall to pilfer the first name of the king of rock 'n' roll while churning out songs about sex, deception, cinematic homicide and the apocalypse in a manner unlike anyone who came before.
These days, Costello, 62, comes off much more like a civil and gracious, well-read connoisseur of genre-melding rock music with a witty and engaging stage manner – qualities that certainly impressed and entertained the sold-out crowd of 1,900 at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park on Monday night in the singer-guitarist's return to the amphitheater for the first time since 2011.
Focusing heavily on 1982's classic Imperial Bedroom album as part of Costello & The Imposters' "Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers" tour, the red-hatted Costello – aka Declan MacManus or Mr. Diana Krall – also clearly showed his affection for West Michigan's picturesque outdoor venue.
As he uncorked a 2-hour-and-25-minute show that focused almost entirely on the first stages of his career (from 1977's My Aim is True to 1983's Punch the Clock) — and churned out almost every track from 1982's Imperial Bedroom — he praised "my beautiful flowers" and redubbed the botanical setting "Imperial Gardens."
Amid glorious sunshine drenching those gardens, West Michigan's own Delilah DeWylde – performing as a duo with guitarist Lee Harvey – had opened the evening with a 25-minute set of warmly received rockabilly and honky-tonk gems.
What followed from Costello – starting with "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" – was a lengthy show that was uniquely Costello: singularly compelling music that ranges from punk- and reggae/ska-tinged muscle to intricate and rhythmically challenging modern pop, all expertly delivered by a marvelous, veteran tag team: keyboardist Stevie Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Davey Faragher and backing singers Kitten Kuroi and YahZareh.
As usual, he was unafraid to trot out lesser known album tracks boasting complex arrangements ("Moods for Moderns," "Human Hands," "King Horse") and balance them with fan faves such as "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison," "Everyday I Write the Book," "Pump It Up" and "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," with the last three of these providing the expected, rousing finish to the show's final encore.
At one point early on, Costello also referenced the election of the current U.S. president, joking that the band considered playing "Waiting on the End of the World" or "Brilliant Mistake," but launched into "Accidents Will Happen" instead.
Part of the attraction of any Costello show is the unpredictability of it all – from the song selections to the way he chooses to reinterpret classics that ooze astute, unfathomably clever lyrics.
A smart send-up of "Green Shirt" morphing into "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" and a delightful, extended rendition of "Watching the Detectives" (complete with a megaphone, siren, scary guitar solo and brilliant pause before the line, "He's got no heart") elevated the show from good to great midway through the night. (Costello's voice seemed strained early on, but soon settled into its familiar groove.)
But the true high points may have come during the first encore which featured stripped-down versions of "Alison" and "A Face in the Crowd" performed by Costello with his two backing singers (after he swapped his red fedora for a blue one), along with epic stabs at "Shot With His Own Gun" and other tunes that not only spotlighted Costello's lyrical genius but Nieve's unparalleled keyboard prowess.
In the end, Costello achieved something that's reserved for only the most thought-provoking artists: entertaining a sold-out crowd hungry for fun and familiarity, and elevating the musical conversation at the same time.