In a decade of pop predictability, Elvis Costello continues to swim outside the mainstream, steering well clear of mediocrities and still keeping his head above water.
He enjoys taking risks — for better or worse — as his last tour here with T Bone Burnett demonstrated. But the wiry Irishman also happens to be the best lyricist and most prolific songwriter of his generation: an original three-minute master.
The show on Tuesday night, like most of his dozen albums, was packed with songs — 28 in the 135-minute set, not counting a half-hour opening solo by Nick Lowe (for a warm-up, this was a tepid effort from the blond British rock veteran).
Lowe has had a long association with Costello and on this tour he sings backup and plays rhythm guitar. But the focus is on the Confederates, a "dream" quartet including James Burton, an elegant, fluent guitarist, and bassist Jerry Scheff, both of whom played in Elvis Presley's band and featured on Costello's King Of America LP last year. Jim Keltner, a super session drummer, provided the high-powered rhythm base, and Austin De Lone (replacing Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) contributed a strong sound on piano and Hammond organ.
Together they pounded out an exciting mix of Costello originals as well as country, boogie and Memphis-style rockabilly. If the show was uneven the music had an impromptu feel — a welcome change from those well-oiled touring machines that trundle relentlessly around Australia. Costello's Confederates failed to mesh every now and again, but was worth it to hear a no-frills rock outfit with real class.
Costello, wearing a dark grey suit with stovepipe trousers and red shoes, opened appropriately with a solo version of "Red Shoes," backed by a crunching rhythm machine. He followed up with the angry "Oliver's Army" before the band swung into action on "Honey, Are You Straight Or Are You Blind?," a rocking rumba, and the creaking country standard "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down."
Concert highlights included the acid, self-targeted "Brilliant Mistake," the strident "Pump It Out" featuring Costello's fuzzy Fender guitar ("my 'noisecaster,'" he quipped), the witty "New Amsterdam" and a riveting, obsessive solo on "I Want You."
Cait O'Riordan, who has left the Pogues to live with Costello, joined him for a forgettable "Let The Good Times Roll," and he aired hits like "Alison" and "Everyday I Write The Book" as well as several new compositions, including an anti-hanging song, a slow ballad called "That Day Is Done."
The best number was left almost until last, into the second encore, when Mose Allison's cool blues, "Your Mind Is On Vacation," became transformed into a raunchy Texas swinger. It underscored the range and depth of Costello's musical influences, and his uncanny ability to transform them into a novel experience for his listeners.
Costello will play an extra Melbourne show, at the Palace nightclub, St Kilda, tonight.