Even though one fan wanted her money back when she realized she just couldn't stomach bluegrass, most of the crowd knew what they were getting into as Elvis Costello picked and plucked and hollered his way though a hoedown of a set Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
Backed by an extremely intuitive Nashville sextet of seasoned bluegrass and country players, the encyclopedic Brit singer stretched out nearly every song from his new Americana roots country album Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.
Flipping through the atlas, "Sulphur to Sugarcane" name-dropped every town from Poughkeepsie to Santa Rosa. "Red Cotton" charted the global scourge of slavery, going all the way back to his mother's hometown of Liverpool. One of several historical narrative ballads, "She Handed Me a Mirror" recounted author Hans Christian Andersen's doomed infatuation with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.
A song he co-wrote with Loretta Lynn yielded one of the best lines of the night: "I felt the chill before the winter came."
And when's the last time you heard a fiddle solo in a cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale"? (Other covers included "Happy" by The Rolling Stones, "Mystery Train" made famous by Elvis, "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" by Merle Haggard and "Friend of the Devil" by the Grateful Dead).
But eventually, even the hardcore fans started yelling out for an Elvis Costello chorus they could sing along to – one woman couldn't stop begging for "(What's So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
"We'll play that on our comeback tour," he quipped, quickly getting back to "the historical part of the show" – a convoluted story of Jenny Lind (and a quick dis of Celine Dion) and P.T. Barnum.
The response: polite laughter mixed with groans.
By the end of the night, he obliged, rolling out several of the classics – "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Alison" and you guessed it "(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" (sealing his comeback tour) – totally reinvented with mandolin, fiddle, accordion and lap slide guitar. Turned inside out and twangy, "Every Day I Write the Book" sounded better than the original, especially layered with Jim Lauderdale's harmonizing vocals.
But for my money, it was the haunting spell of "The Delivery Man," falling midway through the set, that made time stand still. Starting and stopping, over and over, with an echo that reverberated through the room, he kept coming back to the irony of "In a certain light he looked like Elvis / In a certain way he felt like Jesus."
At this point in his unpredictable career, the bespectacled Buddy Holly look-alike (who segued into "Not Fade Away" at one point) still finds that loveable hoarse rasp at the back of his throat when he stretches out a note. And these days, he doesn't have much use for amplification. When he wants to show off his pipes, he just walks away from the microphone and belts it out.
As his father, also a singer, once told him: "Never look up to a note, always look down."
When he mentioned it to the crowd, they fell silent.
"I have no idea what that means either."