I recently stumbled across a bootleg of the very first Elvis Costello show I ever saw. I was a latecomer, and didn't catch the man until the fall of '96, at the tail end of the tempestuous All This Useless Beauty tour. Bad vibes dripped off the stage and the chill in the room was like Costello was spitting out glistening ice cubes, and midway through the set he perversely called an audible, forcing the Attractions into a meandering stab at "So Like Candy." By the abrupt, pulling-the-plug conclusion of the song a tense standoff had developed between Costello and thorn-in-his-side bassist Bruce Thomas, and afterwards not a single note was played for several painful minutes while the band testily conferred about how to proceed. For years I was sure I must be exaggerating the length of that awkward silence, but listening to this scratchy recording confirmed my memory.
Fearlessness and recklessness are often a hair's breadth apart, and Costello has always been an artist whose determination to follow his muse onstage can lead him to brilliance or befuddledness in equal measure. Part of the joy of a Costello concert comes from watching him fancy-footwork his way out of difficult tonal corners in his setlist, or from realizing that he's not going to work his way out at all, and you're just going to have to live with it. But in a whirlwind two-and-a-half hour performance at the Wiltern a few weeks back, closing out the current leg of his tour promoting last year's superb The Delivery Man, Costello evinced newfound discipline in forging rewarding emotional detours through the dark and the sad and the shuffling without ever losing his way.
For instance, Costello and the Imposters — two of the original Attractions plus the redoubtable Davey Faragher filling in for the great, loathed Thomas — could easily have derailed the evening's momentum with repeated excursions into straight-up country music; they were risky calls before an audience not lacking in casual fans. Ditto the evening's dark heart, a midset swing through "Kinder Murder," "In the Darkest Place," "When I Was Cruel No. 2," and an almost mean-spirited "Watching the Detectives," wherein Costello seemed to be using the song's reggae-tinged riffs as a punching bag. Ten years ago the country stuff might have come off as indulgent, and the string of blackness would certainly have sent Costello sinking downwards into the depths, leaving a baffled crowd floating forlornly in lifeboats far above. But tonight Costello was in charge, often using My Aim is True-era chestnuts to buoy the evening's mood, and relying on his less familiar but crunchily thrilling new material to anchor his spirits firmly in place. The band sounded good as well — Steve Nieve is a fantastically creative keys player, Pete Thomas' drumming could hold together a shattering wineglass, and Faragher is rock-solid, though a little unclever in recreating his predecessor's wilder walks down the bass' neck. If the night had its mildly unexciting moments — the Imposters were barely above sleepwalk status for overplayed fave "Pump It Up," and much as you wanted to love guest pedal steel player John McFee's intricate ornamenting of "Alison," it just didn't quite do it for you — overall the show was a masterful tour through perhaps the richest songbook in rock.
If Costello has learned how to keep his darker onstage impulses in check, avoiding the grinding missteps that nearly ruined that '96 performance, then his concerts are now even more unmissable. It just goes to show: Stick around as long as Costello has, and the news is no longer that the guy's so great. It's that he's still finding new ways to achieve greatness.