Hitting the stage to slash and burn his way through an incendiary version of "I Hope You're Happy Now," Elvis Costello reconnected with his local fan base in his first appearance here since 1989. And in its more explosive moments, Saturday's show at the A.J. Palumbo Theater could have passed for a concert from '79 as Costello and two Attractions blew the dust off an entire shelf of early classics — from "No Action" and "Radio, Radio" to "Miracle Man" and "Pump It Up."
But this was no nostalgia tour. He'd dipped into his best new album in more than a decade by the second song, a ferocious performance of "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution)." And before he'd closed the second encore with a menacing version of "I Want You" (still his finest hour), he'd led the band through no fewer than six selections from When I Was Cruel. He even treated fans to his own version of "The Judgement," a song he recently contributed to Don't Give Up On Me, an amazing new album by Solomon Burke. And the truly amazing thing about "The Judgement" is that it seemed more soulful in Costello's hands. But then, he's always had a gift for soul, and to prove it, he followed "The Judgement" with a slow-burning opening verse of Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," before kicking it into the speed it travels at on Get Happy. He also inserted a cover of Smokey Robinson's great "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" into "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror."
Not unlike the course of the singer's career, the set could veer from savage rock 'n' roll abandon to ballads, from country to soul, from anger to, well, more anger. He grabbed an acoustic guitar to bring it down mid-set with "Indoor Fireworks," "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" and "Girls Talk," strumming it Everlys-style. But even then, the pacing never really let you feel as though it might be safe to hit the restroom.
Highlights ranged from those already mentioned to "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea," "Watching the Detectives," "Accidents Will Happen," "45," "Soul For Hire," "Tart" (which included an audience call-and-response), a primal stomp through the menacing clatter of "Uncomplicated" and "Alison," which ended in a soulful reinterpretation of "Suspicious Minds."
The singing was phenomenal throughout — impassioned, rich and stinging. And he did have two-thirds of the greatest backing band the world has ever known on stage to see him through. Pete Thomas, rock's most underrated drummer, pounded out a jungle beat to underscore the drama of an impassioned Costello performance on "Party Girl" and played exactly what John Bonham would have played on "15 Petals." Steve Nieve was as brilliant as ever, whether filling in the empty spaces with his classic keyboard figures or trying his hand successfully at theremin. And the new guy, Davey Faragher, is no Bruce Thomas when it comes to bass, but then who is? He was, however, solid. And his harmonies added a lot, especially on "45."
It's hard to say whether Costello and the Attractions will win their well-deserved induction to the Hall of Fame on this year's ballot, but it's hard to imagine any Hall of Famer turning in a more inspired, energetic set with seven new songs that hold their own against classics after 25 years in the business.