WALLINGFORD, Conn. - On March 1, 1978, while Elvis Costello was still in his "angry young man" phase, he played an unforgettable show at The Student Union Ballroom at UMass.
He left the stage in shambles and the crowd in a state of disbelief after a raucous set that ended abruptly after 40 frenzied minutes.
My, how times have changed. On Friday night, more than 27 years after that event, Costello played a show that may turn out to be just as memorable. Except this time, the ever-prolific songwriter played three full hours at the recently renamed Chevrolet Theatre - formerly the Oakdale - with a group that included Emmylou Harris.
And the combination of Costello and Harris, while intriguing on paper, was mesmerizing in concert.
Before a crowd of approximately 2,300 fans, Costello, with his band The Imposters augmented by Harris, as well as Bob Dylan's masterful former multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, offered fans a little bit of everything.
There was plenty of boisterous rock, deep country ballads, bar songs, blues and passion to spare. Decked out in a suit and blue tie, Costello kicked it up from the outset with a rollicking "Temptation," his voice sounding as strong as in his late '70s heyday.
The bespectacled British singer followed with "Clown Strike," and a series of other gems including a reworked "Everyday I Write the Book," "Country Darkness" and "Clubland," the latter which had a bit of "I Feel Pretty," tagged onto it.
After a ferocious "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," Campbell emerged - looking like Dennis Eckersley's twin - to play pedal steel on a blend of "Waiting For the End of the World," and Van Morrison's "Gloria."
But as wild as the first part of the show was, it could not compare to when Harris took the stage. Striking, silver-haired and dressed in Western attire, she first sang a duet with Costello on Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone."
The country-lovin' Costello and the country legend Harris did 10 songs together during this portion of the night, including standouts such as George Jones' "One of These Days," Costello's "Indoor Fireworks," a swingin' take of Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" - which featured a honky tonk piano solo courtesy of Steve Nieve - and Gram Parsons' "Sin City."
After that extraordinary segment, Costello played with just his longtime mates, Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and the relatively recent addition to the band, bassist Davey Faragher.
Together they rendered a dark version of "The Delivery Man," the title track from Costello's latest album, and picked up the tempo considerably for punk-fueled renditions of early Costello songs "Watching the Detectives" and "Mystery Dance," prior to a fully-fueled take of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?" the vintage classic "Mystery Train," and an intense version of the drum-pounding "Pump It Up." He ended that segment of the night with his timeless ballad "Alison," then a revamped version of a gem by that other Elvis, "Suspicious Minds."
Still, the night was far from over. Harris returned for - get this - a nine-song encore with Costello. Keep in mind that this is a guy who used to barely play nine songs in some of his early shows. But the encores were absolutely exquisite, sparked by a beautiful cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," a three-part-harmony filled version of The Stanley Brothers' "Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet," a moving, full-band take of "Love Hurts," Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," Costello's "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" and "The Scarlet Tide," the latter which the singer revamped with a stinging verse that said "Admit you lied, and bring the boys home."
All in all, 40 songs, the majority of them bloody brilliant. Costello's come a long way from 1978, but he's still got intensity, soul and restless energy to spare. This was one of the best performances he's ever staged in this region and the addition of Harris to his ensemble proved perfect. Here's hoping there's either a live album or DVD coming from this tour. This one deserves to be preserved.
Reach Kevin O'Hare at firstname.lastname@example.org
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