From angry young man to The Delivery Man, Elvis Costello's come full circle of late, exploring his earliest musical roots and digging deep into the American songbook, connecting the dots between country and folk and his own revenge-and-guilt filled catalogue. His current US tour alongside Emmylou Harris has seen him indulge in a series of epic covers-heavy sets with her and long-time Dylan sideman Larry Campbell. The day before this, their headlining festival appearance, however, Harris is forced to cancel, so alt country's first couple, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, are called on to fill in. The pair huddle with Costello in his trailer just before showtime to rehearse a clutch of songs they'll be performing together.
With the PA blaring the opening to Dave And Ansell Collins' classic "Double Barrel," Costello strides on stage, looking sharp in a chromium-coloured suit. Charging headlong into "Uncomplicated" from Blood & Chocolate, he and the Impostors, abetted by Campbell, mix hits and recent album cuts. Slotting several of his own country compositions alongside classics by Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, Costello proves just how well his tunes, once unfairly branded as mere genre exercises, stand up against the genuine article. Steve Nieve, in full mad professor mode, flits wildly between piano, organ and Theremin. Meanwhile, a grinning Campbell, alternating on pedal steel, lap slide, fiddle and mandolin, carves soulful filigrees into newly-penned numbers like "The Crooked Line" (Costello conceding, "It's the first song I've written about being faithful and actually meant," as his wife Diana Krall watches from the wings).
A mournful reading of the Louvin Brothers' "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face?" heralds the arrival of Rawlings and Welch — her airy alto perhaps the only thing that could compensate for the absence of Emmylou. The three of them gather round an old ribbon mike for a driving, whooping acoustic take on "Mystery Train." Bassist Davey Faragher soon joins in, adding a fourth voice to the rural hymn "Gathering Flowers For The Master's Bouquet," the hushed crowd letting the radiant harmonies wash over them.
Costello's been using his bleak Academy' Award-nominated Civil War narrative "The Scarlet Tide" as both a set closer and a subtle gesture of protest. Today, he removes any lingering doubt about his intentions, altering its lyrics into an explicit commentary on President Bush's costly folly in Iraq ("Admit you lied / And bring the boys back home") to a cascade of cheers.
Given that Dylan set the stage for Costello, literally and figuratively, by plugging in, the band fittingly encore with an exultant version of his "When I Paint My Masterpiece," all lunging choruses and sweeping glissandos. As the song fades and the sun dips into Narragansett Bay, there's little doubt that Costello's retained his crown as King of America.