Elvis Costello and the Attractions released Imperial Bedroom in 1982 and so much did I love that album that I convinced the guy at the record store to sell me the promo poster off his wall, a photo of the singer-songwriter under which his name was printed next to an image of the album cover beneath which a one-word question – "Masterpiece?" – was posed.
I thought so then and after seeing Elvis Costello & the Imposters perform nearly all of it at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday I still do. Imperial Bedroom, Costello's seventh studio album, marked a move toward a more ornate style of songwriting and production, a step beyond Trust from a year earlier, and a signal of the restless musical heart and soul he'd explore in the more than 20 albums that have followed.
As Costello noted near the finish of the 30 songs he scattered across two and a half hours, his debut record, My Aim Is True, was recorded in 24 hours, while for the featured album here "we booked ourselves 12 weeks in the studio, and we thought, ‘Now we're really living!'"
Costello and the Imposters – keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas from the Attractions, bassist Davey Faragher the longtime replacement for Attraction Bruce Thomas – went on stage just after 8 p.m., opening the night with "The Loved Ones" while many fans were still making their way into the venue through long lines at the security checkpoints. After "...And In Every Home" he paused to chat with the crowd for a moment, the first of many cheerfully sardonic asides.
"Every other song I felt like singing tonight felt like a satirical choice," Costello said in a subtle political jibe. "‘Waiting For The End Of The World,' ‘Brilliant Mistake,' ‘American Gangster Time.'"
And this one, too, he noted, as the band tore into "Accidents Will Happen," into which the band next raced, the crowd reacting with cheers as the much-loved Armed Forces track took off.
Early on the sound mix seemed a little muddy, with the guy next to me shouting, "Turn that guitar up!" several times, which after a beautiful piano-driven take on "You'll Never Be A Man" and a re-arranged version of "Tears Before Bedtime," slowed down to a sultry jazz vibe, miraculously happened midway through "Shabby Doll."
"Not all the songs on the record are the sad, miserable songs that I know you've been looking forward to – there are a couple of love songs," Costello noted by way of introducing "Human Hands," one of the sunnier songs from Imperial Bedroom.
Nearly all of the set was drawn from Costello's first decade as a recording artist. The only numbers more recent than "Uncomplicated" from 1986's Blood & Chocolate were "This House Is Empty Now" from Painted By Memory, the 1998 album he did with Burt Bacharach, and a strong new song that seems to be titled "(Go Tell Your) Quiet Sister."
His debut, My Aim Is True, saw its two biggest hits performed, "Watching The Detectives," which arrived as moody and ominous as ever midway through the opening set, Costello singing it beneath the green and purple glow of the stage lights, vintage film noir movie posters with femme fatale taglines – "She lit a fuse inside men!" – on the video screen.
"You ever wonder what happens to people after the song is over?" he asked at the close of "Detectives." "It crossed my mind. I got to thinking about those people I wrote back in 1977."
"The Long Honeymoon," which followed, is a sequel of sorts to "Watching The Detectives," the girl still watching the TV, though it's just snow, no picture, the boy long gone.
Unlike some of his recent stops in Southern California here Costello added a pair of backing vocalists, Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, whose voices added lovely touches to not just the Imperial Bedroom numbers but others including "I Wanna Be Loved," with it's lounge-y soul and piano melody, and especially to "Alison," one of Costello's best, which was sung by him and the two women with just the accompaniment of his electric guitar.
The Impostors remain a tight live act — Nieve and Thomas have played together for four decades now, and new guy Faragher has been in the band for 15 – but Nieve really deserves to be singled out for the amazing work he did on Sunday. After "Alison" had opened the first encore Nieve joined Costello for a pair of duo performances, "Shot With His Own Gun" and "Talking In The Dark," both of which placed Costello's croon atop Nieve's dazzling piano. The two then played a third duet, Costello now on guitar, a gorgeous version of "Almost Blue," which Costello modestly described as one of the most enduring Imperial Bedroom tracks because "my gal sang it" – his gal being wife Diana Krall – "and I'm going to send it out to her in Milwaukee."
The night wrapped up with a second encore, which included Costello's first Top 40 single, "Everyday I Write The Book," and then a blazing take on "Pump It Up" straight into "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding," his longtime finale, and the feel-good farewell to a master and his masterpiece of a show.