He just released his first ballet score and is currently writing an opera. But what Elvis Costello does best is play wicked, stripped-down rock with biting lyrics and whiplash tempos. It's just that he really has no more worlds to conquer as a rock musician.
With his three-piece band the Imposters, Costello put on a textbook demonstration of the art of the rock quartet before a capacity crowd Tuesday at Oakland's Paramount Theatre. With almost 30 years experience playing together, keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and vocalist and guitarist Costello share an almost intuitive understanding of his music, and new bassist Danny Faragher, a veteran Los Angeles session player, locked everything down tight and added some attractive high vocal harmonies.
The band spent several weeks last year recording Costello's latest album, The Delivery Man, one of his best in many years, in the heart of Mississippi and clearly soaked up some of the local color. Southern soul, Delta blues, cotton patch country and Memphis rock 'n' roll were at the heart of everything the band played.
The masterful Costello easily ranged from the arcane lyrical Appalachiana of "The Scarlet Tide," a song he wrote with T Bone Burnett for the soundtrack to Cold Mountain, to the ribald roadhouse Chicago blues of Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms." While he leaned heavily on material from the new album, he delved into highpoints from his back catalog, twisting them into new and sometimes surprising shapes, like reimagining the surly "Mystery Dance" from his 1977 debut as a Jerry Lee Lewis-style rockabilly number.
The band souped up every song, adding provocative, bold instrumental passages that darted into intriguing corners. Nieve filled the sound underneath Costello's verbal bombast with swirling, enfolding clouds of keyboards, even adding eerie touches of theremin, a radio-controlled instrument best known from cheesy '50s horror movies and the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Costello tied the band together with taut, swinging guitar, scrupulously adjusted for tone and volume. They played together like scientists.
But it was all setting the stage for Costello's passionate, expressive vocals. While he retains all the snarl and snap of the angry young man who made his memorable U.S. live debut at San Francisco's Old Waldorf in 1977, Costello has matured into an extraordinary soul balladeer. He wrenched the heartache out of "Either Side of the Same Town," the ballad from the new album he wrote with rhythm and blues pioneer Jerry Ragavoy. But he saved his most explosive pyrotechnics for "In the Darkest Place," the melodically rich, demanding and complex piece from his 1998 collaboration with composer Burt Bacharach, a tour de force vocal performance that defies arbitrary categories like rock, pop, jazz.
He looked remarkably like that young man from 28 years ago, still slightly ill at ease in a nondescript suit and tie, not quite as wiry and frantic, his hair thinner, his waist fuller. He has learned to focus that innate intensity over the years and when he applies it with his practiced surgical skill, he can be devastating.
All along, Costello has been willing to let his music speak for itself. He followed his own, crazy path through his career, clearly a gifted and serious musician with keen instincts and the ambition and drive to pursue many different visions. For all the experiments, tangents and digressions he has enjoyed, Costello keeps coming back to this simple, basic rock combo configuration that initially nurtured his talent.
Between the emotional sweep of the songs and the broad accomplishments of the group, stitching highly nuanced detail into the performance at every turn, Costello and his Imposters are playing rock music at the highest levels of the art form. It doesn't get any better than that.