It's been 40 years since Elvis Costello said, "The only two things that motivate me and that matter to me are revenge and guilt," but those elemental feelings were amply plumbed, probed and portrayed during the Imposters' expansive two-hour-plus, 29-song set at Cooperstown's Brewery Ommegang last Friday.
This was the 32nd date on the band's Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour (the fourth show was at Albany's Palace Theatre last October), but Costello kept things fresh for his long-time band and fans alike with a varied utterly unpredictable setlist.
Steve Nieve on piano, Hammond organ and Vox Continental at times threatened to steal the show, while drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher were rock-steady. Costello's spiky, minimalist guitar work infused his lush Bacharachesque melodies with a welcome dose of punk energy, which helped offset the overbearing and overused backing vocals from Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee.
"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," played for only the third time this tour, was a suitably wry way to begin the festivities thanks to its opening couplet: "Oh I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused." Quite a crowd-pleaser, in marked contrast to "Bedlam" (second airing this tour) which seemed to perplex the audience despite Costello's intense passionate singing. The opening lines:
I've got this phosphorescent portrait of
gentle Jesus meek and mild
I've got this harlot that I'm stuck with
carrying another man's child
probably weren't intended to drive much of the crowd to the concession stands for cheese fries and beer, but "Bedlam" ultimately had that effect. The most appealing curveball in the performance was "Talking In the Dark" with a rueful Costello crooning
We can talk like we're in love or talk like we're above it
We can talk and talk until we talk ourselves out of it
Much of the set was, of course, devoted to songs from 1982's Imperial Bedroom, the most lavishly arranged of Costello's albums and in many ways the most Beatlesque (coincidentally, producer Geoff Emerick was concurrently working on Paul McCartney's Tug of War). Three of the four band members played on the album (bassist Davey Faragher wasn't lured into Costello's orbit until 2001), and it was fascinating to hear them translate the widescreen production of Imperial Bedroom into versions that a scrappy four-piece could do justice to. Nieve's wizardry was the key to this process, as he conjured a wide variety of textures from his array of keyboards.
After a rough patch in the first encore with "A Face in the Crowd" and "Blood & Hot Sauce," the band regained momentum with "Shot with His Own Gun" and the aforementioned "Talking In the Dark." The subsequent salvo, four songs from Imperial Bedroom, was downright sublime. With understated backing from Nieve, Costello sang "Almost Blue" with beguiling simplicity.
Almost doing things we used to do
There's a girl here and she's almost you
Almost all the things that your eyes once promised
I see in hers too
Now your eyes are red from crying
"Kid About It," like many of Costello's songs, superficially sounded tender and yet retained a cutting edge, the last verse concluding
We fight so frail
Making love tooth and nail
You gave me the kiss of my life
I might even live to tell the tale
Next up was "Beyond Belief," the headlong rush of the music propelling Costello into a relationship even though he knows how things will end.
I've got a feeling
I'm going to get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing
Now I am beyond belief
Any vestiges of tenderness had faded once the band launched into a coruscating version of "Man Out of Time":
Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning
You drink yourself insensitive and
you hate yourself in the morning
One wasn't sure how Costello could follow that stretch of musical and lyrical bravado, but the second encore served to cleanse the palate, first with the elegaic "Town Cryer," then with up-tempo romps through "Everyday I Write the Book," "Pump It Up" and the evening's sole cover, Brinsley Schwarz's "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Amy Helm's opening set was too brief to fully do her justice, but she sang beautifully, and Cindy Cashdollar's slide guitar was glorious. Love to see more of both of them.