CLEVELAND — As rowdy as some of the rowdier moments on his strongest release since Blood and Chocolate are, there's nothing wild enough to have prepared fans for the glory of Elvis Costello and a band that featured two Attractions reconnecting Thesday with the fiery abandon of their brutal youth at Cleveland's Tower City Amphitheater (the closest he's coming to Pittsburgh).
Even songs from This Year's Model, easily their hardest-rocking album, sounded more intense —more punk— than on the day they hit the streets back in '78 at the height of the punk revolution.
In danger of spiraling out of control, "No Action," "Lipstick Vogue," "Pump It Up" and "You Belong lb Me" were way too fast and sloppy to be anything but life-affirming, while on "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," he spit out the words with the passion of someone who'd written them yesterday.
But then, that's how he treated all the songs he's sung a million times before, from "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" to a spirited "(What's So Runny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Introducing an encore performance of "Radio Radio," he said he used to think that one day he'd be sick of singing it — "but as we all know, radio's still [bleeped]," a gauntlet toss that brought more than 4,000 radio listeners to their feet as Costello bit the hand that, in all fairness, hasn't fed him in a while.
It wasn't all nostalgia, more a seamless blend of old and new.
With Steve Nieve as resident eccentric on keyboards and Pete Thomas securing his claim on the title of rock 'n' roll's most underrated drummer, Costello opened strong with "45," which set the stage as well as it does on his latest release, When I Was Cruel.
From there, he cut directly to an oft-neglected treasure from his debut album. Way more raucous than on record, with heavier accents on the final verse, "Waiting for the End of the World" has never sounded better.
With Davey Faragher doing all he could to fill the shoes of the second-best bassist in rock 'n' roll history (Bruce Thomas), the Imposters — as the band was introduced — approached both old and new material without a hint of caution, playing with the accents and dynamics, stretching it out and otherwise letting it breathe.
On a punishing version of "Uncomplicated" that somehow fell more primal than on record, while Thomas was pushing the beat, Costello was singing behind it. If this loose-is-more approach was better suited to the faster songs (from those already noted to "I Hope You're Happy Now"), it didn't stop a number of his slower songs from emerging as obvious highlights, from a soulful, impassioned performance of "Clowntime Is Over" to a number of the new songs ("Tart," "When I Was Cruel" and "Alibi").
He saved the best for last, though, ending his third encore with a version of his greatest song, "I Want You," that was so intense, so tortured, so unhinged, it left you wondering if instead of just selling his soul to the devil, Costello went the extra mile and did an even trade.