It's a funny thing in the world of rock music, but for some artists to get creatively amped up, it's necessary to pull the plug.
It worked for Bob Dylan, who returned to the wellspring of acoustic folk music in a couple of early-'90s albums before reasserting full command of his songwriting mastery in 1997's Time Out of Mind, a musical renaissance from which he's never looked back.
It worked for Bruce Springsteen when he put the E Street Band on hiatus and assembled the Sessions Band to mine the richness of American folk and gospel influences in We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions album in 2006.
And it has been working wonders for Elvis Costello with his latest work, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, from which he drew generously Tuesday at the Greek Theatre in his gloriously energized return to Los Angeles.
If only every artist looking for a jolt of inspiration could snap his or her fingers and go out on the road with an extraordinary ensemble like the band that's backing Costello on this tour, which also incorporated cornerstone songs from throughout his prolific 32-year recording career.
The key Nashville-based musicians who played on the album are also with him live: dobro master Jerry Douglas, ace fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Mike Compton, bassist Dennis Crouch, accordionist Jeff Taylor and singer-guitarist (and crack songwriter in his own right) Jim Lauderdale.
If that lineup didn't generate enough sparks on its own, Costello also trotted out opening act Lucinda Williams, whom he lauded as "America's greatest songwriter," drolly adding "and my favorite female vocalist I'm not married to," thereby saving himself from any domestic disputes when he gets back home to his wife, Diana Krall, who comes to Los Angeles for two performances at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend.
Their duet on Williams' recent "Jailhouse Tears" was roots country at its dysfunctional best and that curiously rare breed of song that's actually a dialogue rather than merely a vehicle that allows two voices to harmonize.
Costello handled the part of the superficially repentant addict/loser boyfriend, "I'll prove it to you somehow / I'm done with every bit / Look at me I'm clean now," to which Williams shot back: "You're so full of [it]." Caustic as the song's exchanges are, Williams could barely refrain from laughing as she shared them with her delighted foil.
It dropped in perfectly amid Costello's own songs of life's clueless, shady, defiant or downright evil characters, each of which he inhabited with great zeal.
The bluegrass-rooted backing enhanced the feeling through the evening that the foibles, conceits and weaknesses Costello chronicles always have been and will be part of what Mark Twain best described as "the damned human race."
Early on he offered the album's leadoff track, "Down Among the Wines and Spirits," a locale he elaborates on as "where a man gets what he merits." And he practically gloated in "She Was No Good," a tawdry tale of an entertainer's life rooted in the story of European singing star Jenny Lind's first tour to the U.S. in the mid-19th century.
"Sulfur to Sugarcane," a lascivious journey to various ports of call around the country — "the women in Poughkeepsie take their clothes off when they're tipsy" — has quickly become nothing short of a show-stopper in his performances.
Costello applies a mishmash of songwriting styles to the themes he taps on the new album, from art song to Appalachian-style narrative, that sometimes leaves the recording feeling slightly disjointed. But together with the reconfigured versions of other selections from his repertoire, among them "(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes," "Blame It on Cain," "Everyday I Write the Book," they melded beautifully in concert.
"Secret, Profane & Sugarcane" producer T Bone Burnett strolled out from the wings near the end of the show for a vibrant reading of their collaboration "The Scarlet Tide," part of an extended encore in which Costello seemed outright reluctant to put a halt to the fun.
Williams, who has returned once more to make her home in Los Angeles after many years in Nashville, got a heroine's welcome at the start of her 40-minute opening set.
She also went largely acoustic, though guitarist Chet Lyster did employ an electric to great effect, adding amped-up sturm und twang to Williams' exercises in the ups and (mostly) downs of love that she's touched on in the 30 years since she released her first album.
The evening constituted a dream double-bill of two of the most exceptional singers and songwriters of the modern era.