Elvis Costello was acutely aware of where he was. That was made plain in the middle of the show when he stepped forward, away from the microphone, and took a crack at a bit of his "Scarlet Tide" song from Cold Mountain a cappella. He'd reportedly tried this stunt elsewhere; with the Ryman's famed acoustics, he could be sure it would work. (And in fact you could hear him throughout the hall.)
Then there was a certain theme to his choice of covers, which saluted a couple of his personal heroes who both had famously bad nights at the Opry standing on precisely the same spot. His own chestnut "Alison" morphed into a halting, nicely fractured version of that other Elvis's "Suspicious Minds" (we were also treated to a frantic, nasty Farfisa-sound turn on "Mystery Train"). And in tribute to Gram Parsons, there would be "Wheels" and "Sleepless Nights," two of seven duets with a much-anticipated special guest.
"Now this," he announced ruefully, "is really the night you want your voice to be like this — singing with Emmylou Harris!"
Costello was referring to the undeniable fact that he'd reached Nashville feeling pretty sick and was sometimes noticeably hoarse. Yet threw himself into 30 numbers full-tilt nonetheless — which, it should be said, is a damned admirable thing that you wouldn't get from many artists at this point in a very established career. He's not "The Delivery Man" for nothing.
Harris, with her finely-attuned singing instincts, knew what to do in this situation, stretching and filling to match Costello's tone. His singing is clipped compared to her sonorous flow even under ordinary circumstances, and she was in perfect vocal form this night, to boot. But she swooped to match his croakiness on Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone," on the Louvins' "My Baby's Gone," on their recent "Heart-Shaped Bruise" duet, on the songs associated with Gram.
In some ways, all of that was a beautiful side story. This was a show with the Imposters in tow — which, if anyone out there still doesn't know, is basically the Attractions with a bass player who's a great improvement over the original (who, in Elvis' words, "simply couldn't play a groove"). The resulting band is in fact much more attractive.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but for rock screamers, this outfit was spectacular. And for the many who have wondered, after the years of working with orchestral music and lounge music and jazz and what-has-he, whether Costello could rock out again — man, he rocked out again. By some medical tic of rock ‘n' roll, the hoarseness even disappeared when it came time to shout.
So here were "Radio Radio" and "Mystery Dance" and "Pump It Up" and "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," all actually much hotter than they were in the man's knocked-kneed, herky-jerky heyday. Years of working the loose King Of America style has not only aided Costello's singing, but it has made Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums drastically better, though they were already pretty cool to begin with (especially Thomas, who's got that soul band/Levon Helm American slap-drum thing down now). Every rockin' tune that used to be ever so squarely and predictably smashed on the "even clods can follow this" beat was swept up into energizing, real-deal rhythm.
By the time Elvis got to "(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" and "Alison," he had the hallowed hall in the uproar Presley and Parsons never managed — only to cool it down sweetly with the last two moving duets with Emmylou.
Loosening up the music seemed to be the night's theme. Opener Tift Merritt duly noted that this was her first performance on the fabled stage, but that circumstance did not seem to intimidate her very much. For anyone who hasn't seen Merritt and her band perform lately, she's certainly evolved her act, from stand-and-strum country songbird style to, as the audience filing in at the Ryman got to see, a performance dominated by a Memphis-tinged shake-it-up style — hip-shaking, tambourine-shaking, a whole lot of shaking. The confident, adult woman exuberance is infectious, and makes for a lot more of a show to see.
Sure, there's still a country-esque side to her repertoire, which included numbers from both of her albums; she didn't get a "country" Grammy nomination for nothing. But she's never seemed more at home than with the gleeful, assured pop of "Good Hearted Man," which was a crowd-winning highlight of her show.