Elvis Costello had not played Madison since 1983, but his nearly three-hour set Thursday night at Overture Hall made up for lost time.
Drawing from a career that's included everything from punk rock standards to eclectic collaboration, Costello and his band, the Imposters, delivered a spirited, varied show that had the crowd alternately seated in silent reverence and as dancing in the aisles.
Opening with "The River in Reverse," a jazzy acoustic number and title track from Costello's 2006 album with Allen Toussaint, the band could have led audiences to expect a more downtempo set, using the concert hall setting to wistfully explore their storied musical career.
But that would be expected, and if there's one thing that could be expected of Elvis Costello, it's the unexpected. As soon as the Imposters finished their opener, Costello strapped on his signature Fender Jazzmaster and the band tore into the bouncy reggae punk of "Watching the Detectives."
The rest of the set would follow suit, artfully mixing acoustic arrangements with the raw energy of the full band, interspersed with Costello's own ramshackle storytelling, often of his state of mind while writing the songs.
"At the time, I was trying to rid the world of alcohol... by drinking it," Costello mused about the writing of 1980's "Motel Matches." And 1979's "Accidents Will Happen," he said, came from a chance meeting with a female cab driver in Arizona who preferred Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd.
The band took a brief break after a rollicking version of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," but returned soon after for more intimate selections. Costello, with longtime collaborator Steve Nieve on piano, crooned "Temptation" and "Shot with His Own Gun," which showcased Nieve's considerable talents on the keys.
It was after the second break, however, that the concert reached its highest point. Alone, Costello returned to the stage with just an acoustic guitar, and — without any microphones — played "Alison," arguably his best known and most loved song, for an enraptured crowd.
The band returned shortly thereafter and, after a few more songs, closed with spirited versions of "Pump It Up" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" that drew a lengthy standing ovation from the Overture Hall crowd.
While Elvis Costello is one of the most popular and influential artists in modern history — he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, after all — he's never been one to take that for granted. His live show makes that apparent, because even though it had been three decades since he last played in Madison, his concert felt more like a night with an old friend than a grand spectacle.