Elvis Costello performed Friday night at the Roseland Theater. Perhaps you've heard of him.
Elvis Costello, the bespectacled hero of the late 1970s New Wave movement whose tense, sharp-tongued songs such as "Radio Radio" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" meld the snide attitude and nervous energy of punk with smarts and musical skill.
Or perhaps, Elvis Costello, the sympathetic British interpreter of American country music, who evokes classic honky-tonk sentiments in a rollicking cover of "The Bottle Let Me Down" and adds his own page to tear-in-your-beer tradition with bittersweet ballads such as "Poisoned Rose."
Or Elvis the popular-song classicist, who croons subtly sophisticated tunes he's co-written with the legendary Burt Bacharach, such as "In the Darkest Place." Or Elvis the aficionado of 1950s and '60s rhythm & blues, who can conjure "Hullabaloo" flashbacks with the old Sam and Dave dance floor nugget "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down." Or Elvis the bluesman, who more than does justice to the authentic feel and emotion in the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac song "Love That Burns." Or...
Costello was all those things and more Friday, in a terrific encore-less set that lasted more than two hours and rarely, if ever, flagged in terms of energy or interest.
If there are those who still need convincing — and probably none such were amid the packed house at the Roseland — the show was another fine demonstration of Costello's staggering gifts as songwriter and performer. His versatility, breadth of musical knowledge, craft, passion, spontaneity and distinctiveness all were on display.
Granted, his set didn't start out quite so promising. For the first half-dozen songs or so, Costello's voice sounded grainy and a tad ragged. But he dug into his guitar playing with more gusto than usual, adding edge to "Party Girl" with thick, distorted chords, rocking hard in his solo on "Chelsea," and combining a big dirty tone and the melody from "I Feel Pretty" for the coda to the Cuban-tinged "Clubland."
At times, his playing sounded like a cross between his idiosyncratic former sideman Marc Ribot and Los Lobos' soulful David Hidalgo. And soon his singing was back to its normal passion and daring.
Meanwhile, his band the Imposters offered strong support, drummer Pete Thomas pumping like an atomic engine, bassist Davey Faragher adding bold harmony vocals, and the antic keyboardist Steve Nieve splashing colorful riffs and quotes everywhere, such as snatches of "(Theme From) A Summer Place" tucked into "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding".
As usual, though, what mattered most were the songs, and Costello's catalog is one of the richest of any pop writer. From the Brecht-does-Merseybeat "Kinder Murder" to the noirish "When I Was Cruel No. 2" to "Monkey to Man," an addendum to Dave Bartholomew's '50s R&B classic "The Monkey Speaks His Mind" to crowd-pleasing hits such as "Pump It Up," devilish verbal wit and memorable melodies abound.
You might think it would take several artists to cover so many bases. But it takes just one Elvis Costello.