Bolo tie, cowboy boots, cowboy hat, Western-style suit and shirt: Had Elvis Costello been judged solely on his outfit when he strode onstage at the Riverside Theatre Saturday night, the audience might have mistaken him for a moderately and unapologetically disreputable, if amiable, used-car salesman with a dealership on the outskirts of Fort Worth.
Fortunately, his generous sampling of nearly three decades of masterful music did help to deflect that impression. (It didn't hurt that he removed the hat almost immediately). Going from New Wave rock to old-fashioned country to classic pop, Costello performed for more than 2½ hours, and although he often sweated, he rarely strained.
He also didn't fall back on the conventional pacing most musicians use when trying to conceal the toll of age: a predictable, ponderous alternation between slow and fast numbers. Instead, he favored jarring shifts — veering from an opening quartet of serrated-edge rockers to the halting backwoods waltz "Country Darkness" (from his recent, messily brilliant album, The Delivery Man), or pausing in the midst of the intricately icy beauty of "Clubland" to pick a few bars of "I Feel Pretty" (yes, from West Side Story) on his guitar.
Costello indulged his associational anarchy without much stumbling, thanks to the limber responsiveness of his band, the Imposters. Steve Nieve (the very epitome of the huddled professorial keyboard genius) and Pete Thomas (a Keith Moon-level drummer with a bigger body and a smaller drum kit) utilized considerable experience from their time supporting him in the Attractions, while relative newcomer Davey Faragher was unpretentiously effective on bass and backing vocals.
The frontman himself operated well beyond his theoretically intrinsic limitations. Costello's guitar playing did once garner him the nickname "Little Hands of Concrete," and the comparison between his voice and Bob Dylan's remains not entirely inaccurate — certainly, both squeeze intense emotion from constricted throats — but he burned down considerations of mere technical skill, goaded by the Imposters and by the long reach of his talent.
Known most widely for his songs of heartbroken rage and lovelorn contempt, Costello easily poured out an aching, scarred version of his biggest hit, "Alison," and a sinuously slashing take of "Watching the Detectives." However, he also shook his head at his younger self in "When I Was Cruel No. 2" (reminiscent of a James Bond theme song adapted to the foibles of middle age), wrung his hands regretfully in "Either Side of the Same Town" (maturely epic Americana and soul) and simply kicked up his heels for rollicking covers of Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and Nick Lowe's "Heart of the City."
Yet after the crashing noise, the vertiginous tempo changes and the high genre jumps, Costello closed with "The Scarlet Tide," a folk valediction that blanketed most of the near-capacity crowd in a respectful, mournful hush. Then everyone cheered wildly, having given their money to a salesman (or delivery man?) who, despite the look of his garments, had not cheated them.