There are no better live performers in rock at the moment than Elvis Costello. Even hemmed into a quiet country corner by his choice of touring partners, Costello delivered the goods for three electrifying, entertaining hours Sunday at the Chevy Amphitheatre, hitting the stage in savage rock mode with the great Pete Thomas pounding out the jungle beat on "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" and quietly putting the show to bed 37 songs — and nearly as many hilarious introductions — later with Emmylou Harris adding to the understated beauty of "The Scarlet Tide."
His touring partner made her first appearance 10 songs into what had started more as a conventional — meaning brilliant — Costello performance. Joined by two-thirds of the greatest backing band the world has ever known (and bassist Davey Farragher doing what he could to get us through Costello's feud with the mighty Bruce Thomas), he followed "Doomsday" with a souful, stretched-out "Clown Strike" (fueled by Sunday's MVP, Steve Nieve, on the Vox Continental), "Everyday I Write the Book" (with a new, improved chorus), "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea," the acidic cocktail pop of "Clubland," a truly emotional reading of "Man out of Time" and a speed-trial performance of "Radio Radio."
At that point, Larry Campbell joined the band on pedal steel for "Country Darkness," one of several tracks from last year's The Delivery Man that came across in concert as an Elvis staple in the making. Boasting a looser, more natural groove than the studio version, it almost suggested The Band, unlike the song that followed — a breakneck rendition of "Waiting for the End of the World" that sounded punk despite the fuzztone pedal steel.
They slowed things down when Harris joined Costello in a 12-song country segment whose highlights ranged from "Stranger in the House" to Harris doing George Jones nice and pretty on "One of These Days," a gorgeous "Sleepless Nights," "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," "Indoor Fireworks," a seemingly impromptu performance of "Mystery Train," an aching version of "My Baby's Gone," "American Without Tears" and a rocked-out rendition of "Luxury Liner."
Harris left the stage at that point, and the shift in tone was radical, from the dissonant howl of Costello's guitar to a soulful, tortured yet frequently comic performance on vocals that found "The Delivery Man" emerging as the closest thing in Sunday's set to the missing-in-action "I Want You."
And the pacing didn't suffer from keeping the focus on last year's model, with a raucous three-song blast of "Bedlam," "Monkey to Man" and an "Uncomplicated"-worthy romp through "Needle Time" that found Costello torturing the neck of his guitar with a bottleneck slide and ending with "I feel so suicidal, even hate my rock 'n' roll." The next three songs came fast and furious, all played too fast but in a good way, from "Mystery Dance" to Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me" and a "Pump It Up/Ain't That a Lot of Love" medley, ending the set with a soulful "Alison" that morphed into "Suspicious Minds."
When Costello returned for the encore with Harris in tow, he promised "We're just getting started" and then proved it with an eight-song encore that began with more Gram Parsons ("Wheels") and included a devastating — dare I say newly definitive — version of "Love Hurts," a ballad Harris used to sing with Parsons, in addition to the Stones' attempt at capturing the Parsons sound ("Wild Horses").
Other highlights of the encore ranged from Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" to a spirited "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding" and the anti-war "The Scarlet Tide," marked by a venomous delivery of the line "Admit you lied and bring the boys back home."