It would be easy to classify Elvis Costello simply as an aging hipster — a once cutting-edge songwriter — resigned to duets and sappy ballads.
But for fans that have followed the chameleon's many musical endeavors, Costello is more than a former punk turned balladeer and change has been his defining characteristic.
"The great appeal of Costello is that he is unpredictable and is always changing, heading off in directions as the muse takes him," said John Everingham, who runs a Costello fan-site, www.elviscostello.info, from New Zealand. "It has taken me to new areas of music that I was previously unaware of or not interested in, only to find that they are wonderful also."
"Monkey to Man," the first single off of Costello's latest album, The Delivery Man, is an appropriate analogy for the evolution of the musician who has transformed from punk-rock wunderkind to adult-rock powerhouse.
After introducing himself in the late ‘70s as a socially conscious geeky rocker – think a less pretentious Rivers Cuomo á la Weezer – his 25-plus-year career has revealed him to be more than another excitable rocker with a chip on his shoulder. Musically, he's explored practically every facet of popular music, from the proto-punk rants of his debut, My Aim is True, to collaborations with pop-music icons Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney.
"I was really disappointed when the country album Almost Blue was released, but soon came to like the music," Everingham said about the 1981 album in an e-mail. "It seemed, at the time … that Elvis had abandoned pop music. But I soon came to discover that he would never stay in one place very long."
Elvis Costello and the Imposters – pianist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Farragher – play a 7 p.m. show Saturday at the Big Easy Concert House. Tickets to the all-ages show are available for $35 through TicketsWest, (800) 325-SEAT or www.ticketswest.com.
"I'm going. Love that gap-tooth look," said Doug Boe, a Spokane lawyer, in an e-mail. "Hey, it gets me to thinking about pork pie hats, monkeys and Bacharach all at the same time. He's getting some crazy feedback from that hollow body (guitar) these days."
The Rebel Man
Before recording a follow-up to his debut, Costello, now 50, put together The Attractions, featuring Nieve, Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas. He worked with the group non-stop through the early ‘80s, and many consider the group's music the best of Costello's career. The quartet was inducted into the Rock ‘n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
"When (Costello) was with The Attractions, that was divine," said University of Idaho student Mark Clatterbuck. "The stuff he was doing was so cutting edge."
The band's last-minute appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1977, filling in for the Sex Pistols, is remembered as one of the most memorable moments in the show's 30-year run.
During the band's performance of "Less Than Zero," toward the end of the show, Costello abruptly stopped playing and brought the band to a halt. He addressed the audience, saying there was no reason to play the song, and he led the band through "Radio, Radio," a song SNL producers and creator Lorne Michaels specifically asked the band not to perform because of its anti-media sentiments. The stunt got Costello banned from the show for 13 years, before he was invited to return in 1989. He and Michaels buried the hatchet in 1999, when Costello re-enacted the bit during SNL's 25th Anniversary Special.
The now classic Costello hit was released after his SNL appearance on 1978's This Year's Model, his first album with The Attractions.
The Mellow Man
Though he continued to work on and off with The Attractions in the 1990s, Costello also began experimenting with genres that contradicted the aggressive punk rock on which he built his fan base.
Some may consider his considerably less deviant musical endeavors to be an abandonment of his punk-rock roots. But really, what could be more of a big finger to conformity than Il Songo, Costello's 2004 debut as an orchestra conductor, with no prayer of widespread commercial success?
"I don't think he really sold out, he just got older," said 30-year-old Clatterbuck. "He obviously could play songs that he was feeling. I'm older than I was when I got into him, but I'm still not as old as he is, so I'm not into the stuff he's writing now."
His classical music offerings began with 1993's "The Juliet Letters," with the Brodsky Quartet. And his relationship with Bacharach, which started with a collaboration for a track for the movie "Grace of My Heart," blossomed into the 1999 album Painted from Memory, co-written by the two. They also were famously portrayed singing "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" in Mike Myers' 1999 film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Costello released North, a collection of piano ballads in 2003, the same year he married Canadian jazz diva Diana Krall. Costello co-wrote several songs for Krall's The Girl in the Other Room, also released in 2003.
"Sure, Costello's fans have matured with him, mellowed as he and his music have," Paul Lindholdt, an Eastern Washington University professor, said in an e-mail. "The skinny geek that screamed about media corruption in ‘Radio, Radio' has matured into a sophisticated artist who is as comfortable collaborating with Burt Bacharach as he is raging through standards like ‘(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding.' "