When Elvis Costello played Hard Rock Live in 2002, the singer put on a solid rock show that reflected the pleasing focus of When I Was Cruel.
Costello, never content to mine the same influences for long, dabbled more on the country side on his latest release, The Delivery Man. Yet the singer's generous and brilliant performance on Wednesday at House of Blues expanded that stylistic turn in wonderful ways, while devoting plenty of time to fiery versions of old favorites.
For two hours and 15 minutes, Costello teamed with the Imposters — bassist Davey Faragher, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve — to produce a show that constantly revealed engaging new layers in old and new material.
Lest anyone think that Costello had gone country, he opened the show with a blistering 15-minute rock salvo that included clanging versions of "Uncomplicated" and "Radio, Radio."
The latter was folded seamlessly into the mix between When I Was Cruel's "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" and "Button My Lip," Delivery Man's raucous opening track. Hearing the songs in sequence was a reminder of the consistency of Costello's creativity amid all the genre-bending side trips through the years.
The opening moments also foreshadowed the tremendous presence that the band would exert all night. Nieve's spiraling keyboard arpeggios and alien-sounding theremin on "Uncomplicated" provided an atmospheric counterpoint to the pounding rhythm section.
Dressed in a dapper, all-black suit and glittery silver boots, Costello was an amiable host, though he didn't waste time exchanging too many pleasantries. "How ya doing?" he asked several times. Later, he offered a few obligatory theme-park jokes.
With this kind of a band, let the music do the talking.
Although the keyboard solos were an obvious element, bassist Faragher emerged as the group's hidden weapon, lining the musical background with melodic bass figures and adding beautiful high harmonies to the country-tinged Delivery Man ballads.
Replacing Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, Costello's studio duet partners on the album, is a daunting task, but Faragher was more than capable on the tear-stained "Country Darkness" and "Heart Shaped Bruise."
The transformation in the former was a revelation, with the steel guitar of the album version replaced by a stately Memphis blues feel that allowed the country melody to sneak in almost unannounced.
Those two songs illustrated that Costello is making subtle sonic changes to The Delivery Man in concert. A more muscular edge often replaced the twangier studio approach, unearthing the bluesy DNA behind "Needle Time" and "Either Side of the Same Town."
By comparison, the older songs were executed with more faithful exuberance: "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Pump It Up" were charged with ageless passion.
Other favorites were juxtaposed with material that accented intriguing contrasts: A bouncy "Watching the Detectives" burst out of the simmering "When I Was Cruel No. 2" as if it were ricocheted from a slingshot.
"You've Really Got a Hold on Me" found its way into the middle of "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" in the same way that Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" folded into the conclusion of "Alison."'
At the end, there was Costello singing "The Scarlet Tide," without a microphone, standing in the shadows. Country darkness never looked so good.