The trend these days among whippersnappers like the Strokes and the White Stripes is brevity — short and punchy songs and concerts.
While there's something to be said for such urgency, the practice of exploring dynamics, introducing new sounds, and unearthing forgotten gems during an extended program has become a lost art. Enter Elvis Costello and the Imposters, who, over a smartly paced two hours and 40 minutes at the Tower Theater on Saturday night, blended the old and the new, the vitriolic and the tender, with ageless grace.
Supporting his finest album in years, the agitated When I Was Cruel, Costello wasn't bashful about peddling his new wares, which made up two-thirds of the set list. The autobiographical "45" opened the show with crisp pop melodies blossoming into unhinged guitar and organ chicanery.
Set to a guitar and percussion loop, the darkly exotic "When I Was Cruel No. 2" was a show-stopping ensemble piece. As drummer Pete Thomas tickled his drums and cymbals with mallets, Costello sang with devilish delight while Steve Nieve played mad scientist at his keyboard setup, massaging howls from his Theremin, and gleaning chirpy tones from a melodica.
Of the older material, Costello treated "Man Out of Time" and a hushed "Alison" with reverence to fantastic results, while frantic readings of "Radio Radio" and "Pump It Up" careened off the rails. The extended coda in "Watching the Detectives" was transformed into a drunken-sounding carnival of melody, with Nieve tickling all 88 ivories on his piano as Costello's guitar runs were panned from left to right over the PA system. And the evening-ending "I Want You" was so skin-crawlingly creepy that someone should have slapped Costello with a restraining order right there onstage.