Long before he became the host of a Sundance show enabling him to perform with everyone from Smokey Robinson to Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello was already something of a heritage preservationist and songbook revivalist, two traits on grand display during his outstanding performance Tuesday night at the Greek Theatre.
Right from the start of his career he dabbled in country –- any self-respecting fan knows all the words to “Radio Sweetheart” and “Stranger in the House,” the latter later recorded by George Jones. But Costello's affinity with roots music and the myriad influences on his songwriting deepened with the dawn of the '80s, when his Stax-soaked fourth album with the Attractions (1980's double-stuffed Get Happy!!) led to tributes to forebears that have been overt (his 1981 country covers collection Almost Blue, its 1995 grab-bag sequel Kojak Variety) or intimately textured (the rustic brilliance of 1985's King of America, produced by T Bone Burnett) ... or sometimes mannered (the studio fantasias of 1983's Imperial Bedroom and 1989's Spike).
Since then, of course, his fascination with music other than rock has broadened alongside his record contract, resulting in wide-ranging experiments few artists of his stature have dared: classical collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter ... his first piece for ballet (2004's Il Sogno) ... his richly detailed recording with Burt Bacharach, 1998's Painted from Memory.
That catholic approach, combined with his encyclopedic knowledge and erudite wit, is what makes his interview program Spectacle so unique and engaging.
This decade, however, Costello has routinely cast his eye back to the fundamentals of American music in the mid-20th century, be it jazz both balladic (2003's North, inspired by wife Diana Krall) or booming (2006's My Flame Turns Blue) or roots detours that pick up where King of America left off (2004's The Delivery Man, 2006's The River in Reverse, with Allen Toussaint).
All of them have been intriguing and (to varying degrees) creatively successful, but apart from the ragged glory of The Delivery Man none has been quite as rewarding as his latest foray: Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. A reteaming with Burnett, now arguably the most highly regarded Americana producer in action, the album reconnects Costello to folksier ways while attempting to do for his career what Raising Sand (another Burnett creation) did for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
Whether it will yield a clutch of Grammys remains to be seen, but that should hardly matter to fans fortunate enough to witness Tuesday's show. Across 26 songs in two hours, Costello, fit and feisty as he turns 55 next week, brought his ongoing roots excavation into focus on stage, with a show that felt like the young ambition of Almost Blue finally fully realized.
Backed by a superb six-man band -– dubbed the Sugarcanes and including singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale (an ideal harmony vocalist) and several leading bluegrass figures, including sharp fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolin expert Mike Compton and Dobro ace Jerry Douglas –- Costello put together a package that played like a guest-free extended edition of Spectacle, nothing but the star presenting retooled favorites (his own and those by others) alongside fresh cuts.
Some of those, like a stormy character piece we'll call “Dragging Me These Last Few Yards” –- a killer's unrepentant adios as he faces execution, declaring “the last thing you'll hear is my cold-hearted cackle” –- are so new they're “not even on wax yet.” (The now-mustachioed Costello noted that “we're gonna fix that tonight at midnight.”) Along with the syncopated “Five Small Words,” such unreleased gems were proof that this back-porch setting is bringing out the best in the prolific songwriter.
What's more, it has heightened his skill for rearrangement, never more noticeably than in a rapidly waltzing rendition of the Velvet Underground's “Femme Fatale” that packed the pulse and passion of Van Morrison's “Astral Weeks,” with lush three-part harmonies to boot. Indeed, more so than how he smartly reworked his own material (a wonderfully bluesy “Blame It on Cain,” a peppier “Brilliant Mistake,” a sparser “Everyday I Write the Book”), Costello's covers at the Greek were consistently marvelous.
Several were played straight (“Mystery Train” to open, Merle Haggard's “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” not long after that, Jones' “The Race Is On” in the encore). But others were whipped up to whirling speed, as in his ripping run through the Grateful Dead's “Friend of the Devil” (with sterling accompaniment from Duncan and Douglas) or his lively sparring with opening act Lucinda Williams on the Rolling Stones' “Happy.” (Lu, loose and low-key yet warm and winning in her own nine-song set, also joined for the deadbeat duet “Jailhouse Tears,” which she wrote for her album Little Honey. It was almost as bawdy as the dirty-old-man tropes of Costello's “Sulfur to Sugarcane.”)
By the time Burnett himself appeared for “Complicated Shadows” and “The Scarlet Tide” at the tail-end of the set, just before EC obliged with “Alison” with minutes to go before curfew, it was clear that none of Costello's previous genre forays had led to such a terrific, meaningful live encounter.
I've heard grumbling from longtime fans that his latest album is proof his fire has gone out. I say it's just the opposite: this Greek show, combined with the quickie joy of last year's Momofuku, suggests he's getting lit up all over again. Here's hoping he ventures back onto this musical terrain again and again.