It's a good thing punk rock self-destructed before it conquered America. Almost 30 decades later, the explosion of musical energy that shook England and New York — and that shaped the headstrong idealism of a musician who named himself Elvis Costello — still has an untapped vitality and variety, as Costello's tremendous nonstop blowout Friday night at Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater demonstrated.
The 50-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist and his three-piece band the Imposters played barely without pause for almost 2½ hours. They tore through classics from early in Costello's career ("(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding"), let Costello's guitar weep through impassioned jazz-tango ballads ("When I Was Cruel No. 2"), wailed the honky-tonk blues ("There's a Story in Your Voice"), and even dared to play Latin to the South Florida crowd. Costello's a clever yet sincere musical chameleon, adept at bringing coals to Newcastle and making them burn.
That other Elvis (Presley) would never have had this much energy and creativity 25 years into his career, if he had survived. Pop artists' musical veins get tapped out by overexposure. Costello was primed for the big time early on, too, but he sabotaged his breakthrough by pushing his Angry Young Man persona too far. Therefore, oldies like "Watching the Detectives" still sound like fresh jewels. Costello's longtime pianist, "Miracle Man" Steve Nieve, remade that song Friday by pulling out its reggae beat.
Part of Costello undoubtedly regrets that he still has to tour small theaters, instead of reclining in front of multiple TV screens in a mansion. The only shame about Friday evening was that the theater was not quite filled to capacity. Those that were there knew they were getting a show they won't soon forget, if ever.
After a strong brace of country-rock tunes by Janis Joplin-esque opener Tift Merritt, Costello, Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher took the stage promptly at 9. They played eight songs in 30 minutes, with only the slightest pauses for Costello to rearm from his arsenal of guitars, culminating in the rending "Needle Time," wherein the leader stopped the band and showed how inventive his guitar playing has become. The song is one of several from Costello's most recent rock album, The Delivery Man, that stood strong against such classics as "Everyday I Write the Book" in concert.
There were some technical troubles, which Costello turned to his advantage. When his electric setup was humming, he grabbed an acoustic and sat on the stage's edge to strum "Alison"; the audience sang along. Then he sat in the front row for "Almost Blue." The evening was full of such indelible moments. One favorite: Costello completely stilling the audience with the Spanish cadences of "Toledo," from his '98 collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
Nieve and Thomas have played with Costello basically since he started. They've grown interesting together. Faragher adds something Costello's always wanted: a good, harmonizing backup singer. He sang the Emmylou Harris parts on such songs as the evening's finale, "The Scarlet Tide." The song, sung by Alison Krauss two years ago for the film Cold Mountain, shows how time has made Costello timeless.
The singer stepped away from the mike and keened the song's tragic lyrics, with their implicit indictment of war: "We'll rise above the scarlet tide / That trickles down through the mountains/ And separates the widow from the bride." His fine, worn tenor carried through the mesmerized hall.