Elvis Costello and the Imposters played the final show of their 2019 "Just Trust" tour Tuesday night at the Miller High Life Theatre, with Costello saying there was no place he'd rather be than this intimate venue.
A mere 36 years ago, Costello and the Attractions played the same room when it was known as the Milwaukee Auditorium. That night, his song "Everyday I Write the Book" was on the Billboard charts. This night, he reprised the tune, but Billboard has been off Costello's radar for a long time.
"These songs we are playing tonight are ones I want to hear. That's why it's called 'Just Trust'—just trust us," Costello said. And for years now, fans from casual to hardcore could trust the artist, even when his whims would test the patience of most other fanbases.
Costello's catholic taste has led to a dossier dotted with musical bullet points from opera to country and western and collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Chet Baker, Marian McPartland and Paul McCartney.
But tonight, Costello served up over two dozen of his most memorable songs backed by The Imposters. His band featured keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, both holdovers from The Attractions, plus bassist Davey Faragher and vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee. To call it a "best of" ignores the fact Costello could show up again tomorrow and play an equally satisfying set list without repeating a tune.
The one-time "angry young man" certainly acknowledged his early albums with an opening volley of tunes ("Strict Time," "Clubland," "Green Shirt," "Accidents Will Happen," "Lip Service," "Watch Your Step" and "Little Triggers") coming from his first five albums.
Sporting a black-spangled tuxedo coat and red fedora, Costello was master of ceremonies as he generously shared the spotlight with Nieve, who surveyed his kingdom of keyboards from behind a grand piano. His musical introductions and virtuosity have always walked the line of playful gravitas. The addition of Kuroi and Lee allowed for vocal arrangements that added depth to the songs, especially "Suit of Lights" and Allen Toussaint's "The Greatest Love." Even more impressive was that Lee was onstage "disobeying doctor's orders," having missed the Madison show with the flu.
Here was Costello the music nerd. Picking up an oddball, green, sunburst, 12-string Burns guitar, he rambled into an anecdote about wanting to hear Sir Doug and Freddy Fender on the radio and arguing with the lady cab driver who wanted to hear Pink Floyd. He also managed drop in a handful of footnotes in his tunes, including musical quotes from Jean Knight, The Supremes and Jimi Hendrix. "A Face in the Crowd," the song from Costello's upcoming musical (based on the Andy Griffith movie), referenced The Staple Singers' gospel hit, "Uncloudy Day." The evening's encore included Beatles-by-way-of-Larry Williams "Slow Down."
There may be a certain resignation that Costello has grown into his long-craved torch singer role, which is fitting, especially when recalling his vocalist father's career. But Costello's free-ranging stylistic appetite is best served with raucous tunes like the thinly veiled rockabilly of "Mystery Dance" or the noir faux reggae of "Watching the Detectives." The latter saw the singer bathed in ominous red footlights as his twangy Fender Jazzmaster played in a reverse loop for an effect that matched the woozy lurid pulp novels and movies posters projected behind him.
Costello playfully referenced his early career with a series of backdrop images that played up the cover photos for his album, This Year's Model. The images would also flash references to lyrics and titles. For Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," the backdrop would broadcast anti-war messages, including military photos of Costello's grandfathers, one of whom was a prisoner of war.
Surveying the audience, this was an evening for folks who likely had not heard the term 401K the first time they heard Elvis Costello. There were rabid fans in the front row singing every word back to the singer and a dad from Rhode Island who made the trip with his son from Chicago.