There's no telling who Elvis Costello will be standing next to on stage. Last year, the bespectacled Brit toured with Emmylou Harris. This year, he put out an album with Holland's Metropole Orkest. Next month, he releases The River in Reverse, with New Orleans piano man Allen Toussaint.
On Friday at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the 51-year-old songwriter performed with his band, the Imposters, while being celebrated by a troika decades younger than he: indie popsters Death Cab for Cutie, husky-voiced waif Fiona Apple, and Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong, who pulled the elementary school contingent into the multigenerational crowd.
Credit VH1's Decades Rock Live series for arranging the occasion. And blame the cabler for the taping delay, which will ensure that when the concert finally airs, the half-full, lousy-sounding Mark G. Etess Arena will be magically transformed into a polished show at The Perfect Concert Hall.
But enough bickering. The show was smartly conceived, the material well-chosen. Death Cab's Ben Gibbard came off like a dweeb by asking to restart a song because "I dropped my pick." That won't make the final cut. A forceful version of Costello's "Kinder Murder" and strummy duet on his own "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" will, deservedly so.
Death Cab represents the mild influence of Costello's verbally rich rock. Apple covers the dark side. Looking like a pint-sized Morticia Adams in a purple dress, she nearly stole the show from the gracious host she so obviously adores.
Costello made her gloriously good "I Know" his own. The two paired off on his "Shabby Doll" and her "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)," assisted by Imposters keyboard whiz Steve Nieve. The evening's highlight was Apple's hellacious interpretation of Costello's "I Want You," a song about obsessive, vindictive love. She knocked it out of the park.
Armstrong brought the crowd to its feet, joining with Costello on "No Action," an acoustic "Alison," and bruising "Pump It Up," as well as on the Green Day hits "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."
As with all the other guests, Armstrong's affection for Costello seemed genuine, and the admiration mutual. All the younguns came back for an encore of enduring songs none of them wrote: Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and Nick Lowe's "(What So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?"