Elvis Costello can't remember the last time he played a club, at least in the United States. In a phone interview Wednesday, he said it might be as long as 15, even 20 years ago.
But through a fortunate chain of circumstances, he'll be at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence for two shows Sunday night.
Jack Reich, who books the shows at Lupo's, said Costello had a concert fall through in Guilford, N.H., and was looking for a replacement gig. His agent thought of Lupo's. (Costello will also be at the Fleet Boston Pavilion tomorrow night)
"We had an opportunity to play in a club atmosphere, do two shows in one night . . . it sounded like an interesting idea," Costello said.
He joked that knowing the people of Providence, the audience for the 7 p.m. show would be coming directly from evening prayers, while the 10 p.m. crowd would have spent their time getting properly lubricated.
"The more lascivious dancing will be found at the later show," he predicted.
Costello is on tour with his rock band The Imposters — drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard player Steve Nieve of Costello's longtime backup band The Attractions, plus bassist Davey Faragher.
Their recent travels have taken them to theaters, outdoor venues, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Ottawa Bluesfest, and what Costello called "a ghastly event in Chicago apparently designed to sell beans." (The Taste of Chicago festival.)
Reports from recent shows have Costello & Co. ranging widely through his vast repertoire, offering some re-interpretations of old favorites such as "Pump It Up" and "Watching the Detectives."
He's been doing a few tunes from his last album, When I Was Cruel, although Costello made it clear he's not concentrating on material from that record.
"Most people tour to 'support' a record, as though it's an ailing thing that needs help," he said. "Why should I do the record company's job? They didn't do theirs."
(Costello was referring to Island Records, which released When I Was Cruel.)
Next up for Costello is a dramatic change of pace, an album of piano-based ballads called North, to be released Sept. 23 on the classical Deutsche Grammaphon label.
Instrumentation will range from solo piano to a 48-piece ensemble that will include 9 horns and 28 string players.
"There are strings, but used very sparingly. They might only play three notes on a song," Costello said. "There are only 12 bars of electric guitar in the whole thing — this is by no stretch a rock 'n' roll record. People who only know me from "Pump It Up" probably won't like it."
But Costello has had an extraordinarily varied career since he first burst onto the scene in 1977 with My Aim Is True as one of the angry young men of British rock. (Costello once famously said that revenge and guilt were the driving forces behind his music.)
But even then, Costello stood out for his songcraft and his sophisticated, if barbed, lyrics.
Since then, he's delved into soul, country (Almost Blue), lushly crafted pop (Imperial Bedroom) and classical (The Juliet Letters). Collaborators have included Burt Bachrach, Paul McCartney, and the Brodsky String Quartet.
Costello, born Declan Patrick McManus in London, pointed out that his grandfather was a classical trumpet player, his father played trumpet and sang for a big band, and his mother managed a record store.
"I can't apologize for liking lots of music," he said.
Even early on, Costello said, he was incorporating some of his influences into his material even if it wasn't always apparent.
The guitars in "Watching the Detectives," for example, are meant to imitate horns, and the brief piano riff in the song is Costello's tribute to film composer Bernard Herrmann.
Costello said the material for North materialized very quickly.
"It happened in a very dramatic way. I just started writing — three in one day. I was trying to be true to the very concentrated, still, musical form they took. Usually spontaneity is associated with a certain crudity, but not in this case. The songs just took me over and demanded of me how they should sound."
Costello said he can't know how North will be received, but added that he's done enough different things over the years that the record shouldn't come as a shock to fans.
The critics could be a different story.
"It's the oddest thing how deeply conservative and frightened rock journalism has become since I started," Costello said. "Timid, shallow, bereft of imagination . . . almost anything outside of what they think of as what rock music should be, and they can't deal with it."
So heaven knows how his project after North will be received — a classical, instrumental interpretation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream commissioned by an Italian dance company and performed by the London Symphony.
Unlike McCartney, who composed his classical pieces by dictating melodic ideas to a collaborator who then arranged the music for orchestra and chorus, Costello said he's "learned the code" so he can compose the music himself.
"For a while I was rehearsing with the Imposters in the evening and working with the London Symphony by day," Costello said.
In the meantime, Costello hasn't forgotten old favorites — concerts on the current tour have included classics such as "Alison," "Radio Radio" and "Less Than Zero" — but sometimes with a different interpretation than they once had.
"You've got to be prepared to be playful, use some fantasy," Costello said. "Think of the number of classical numbers that actually use the word fantasy in the title. If people don't like it, they can go and play the record, can't they?
Elvis Costello will play two shows at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, 239 Westminster St., Sunday, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. The 7 p.m. show is sold out. Tickets for the 10 p.m. show are $25 in advance, $30 day of show. Tickets are available at the box office, inside the Met Cafe at 130 Union St., at Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 331-2211 or online.