At 52, musical chameleon Elvis Costello is better known now for his opera compositions and piano ballads than for the '70s punk sound that got him barred from Saturday Night Live for more than a decade.
Though he's certainly done important work since his pub rock days — most recently the full-scale orchestral piece Il Sogno and the Hurricane Katrina-inspired blues album The River in Reverse — one question remained that his fans were afraid to ask themselves: Did the guy remember how to rock?
The Englishman gave Reno his answer Friday night by calmly walking onto a simple black-draped stage at the Silver Legacy, picking up a guitar and crashing without preamble into the opening chords of "Welcome to the Working Week."
Though Costello first recorded the song in 1976, he and his band, the Imposters, went at it like it was their very first time.
It took the audience, a mixed bag of perhaps 1,500 people, about 30 seconds to get their minds around the fact that, yes, the stout, bespectacled man in the Western suit was belting out rock tunes like a pro.
But by the time drummer Pete Thomas transitioned into "Accidents Will Happen" from 1979's Armed Forces album, everyone was on the same page and bobbing their heads accordingly.
The band came loaded for bear with a 90-minute set heavy on the hits and surprisingly light on Costello's recent, more high-minded songs.
From the dirty boogie of "Clubland" to the bitter stomp of "Uncomplicated," it was not a night for introspection or high art, though Costello has proven himself more than capable of tackling both over the last 30 years. It was a night for the Imposters to cut loose.
The group hurtled nonstop through nearly 10 songs before Costello even spoke to the crowd. Far from ignoring them, he'd been waving, smirking and flourishing all along. But as a master fully immersed in his craft, he simply hadn't had time to make small talk.
Likewise, Thomas spent most of the show skillfully blasting the drum kit with his face set in a mask of grim determination.
His rearranged backbeat to the SNL-banned "Radio, Radio" seemed on the verge of inciting a mosh pit as spectators crowded to the foot of the stage and began jostling each other. This being a Silver Legacy show, however, patrons politely dispersed when security showed up.
Meanwhile, keyboardist Steve Nieve resembled a mad scientist as he spun from panel to panel, moving toggles and keying in hooks.
On "The Beat," he seemed to be performing most of the song by himself, playing piano during one verse and poking at a synthesizer the next.
Most impressive, though, was Costello. A musician whose instrumental chops have generally been overshadowed by his compositional and singing abilities, he pulled off a series of guitar heroics with apparent ease.
As the reworked hit "Watching the Detectives" evolved into a jam session, Costello embarked on a minutes-long solo, finally establishing a call-and-response cadence between his voice and his own guitar. This brought even the most casual fans in the crowd to their feet.
The pace only slowed once, when Costello stood alone on stage with an acoustic guitar to deliver the ballad "Alison" as a straight-ahead emo singalong in the vein of Dashboard Confessional.
Coming from any other 52-year-old, it would have seemed like a pathetic attempt to stay current. But coming from an artist who was there in the earliest days of confessional pop, it seemed appropriate. Because, as he has demonstrated again and again, Elvis Costello can play anything he wants.