TAMPA — For 1,432 Elvis Costello fans Saturday, the British star's Tampa Theatre performance was a return to form.
Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you're aware that Costello, 50, has been ambitious for the past few years, recording everything from a somber jazz album to Il Signo, his first orchestral piece, and The Delivery Man, his new rock offering and a return to his backing band, the Imposters.
Curmudgeonly as he's known to be, Costello has in recent years been a happier man since his marriage to jazz chanteuse Diana Krall. Krall was nowhere in the house Saturday, but that didn't stop Costello, dressed in a black suit, from rocking like he used to and sharing jokes and funny anecdotes.
Yes, it was a full-on rock 'n' roll performance, and Costello culled from his entire catalog.
Opening the show was a searing "Blue Chair," from 1986's Blood & Chocolate. Understatement may have been Costello's chosen path for his melancholy singing on North, showcasing his finely honed croon, but the former punk rocker on this tour is back to a ragged howl — and even a bit of hamminess.
The next tune was a powerful "Uncomplicated," followed by the magnificent "Beyond Belief" decorated by drummer Pete Thomas' making mincemeat of his highhat and cymbals.
"Radio, Radio" had some in the crowd jumping out of their seats to greet the rebel anthem on which Costello indicts everything that stinks about corporate rock and commercial radio. (Younger folks at the show may not have recalled the brouhaha when Costello, against the network's wishes, performed the song on Saturday Night Live years ago).
Relaxed, Costello explained the theme of The Delivery Man, a song cycle about the life and crimes of a man named Abel. Even those tunes, steeped in rootsy R&B and country flourishes, went over well with the crowd.
Piano sweeps and dizzying keyboards, courtesy of longtime collaborator Steve Nieve, punched up the old gem "King Horse."
Later, fans heard more classics including "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Watching the Detectives," as well as a tender "Alison."
Country upstart Tift Merritt, from North Carolina, was a captivating opener. In a genre where the twang seems to be dying out, Merritt, who played keyboards and electric and acoustic guitar, offers plenty, plus the Motown soul, R&B and gritty rock.
Nominated for Best Country Album at the Grammy Awards last month, the 29-year-old Merritt sings like an angel, too, on her sophomore Tambourine. Good news for folks looking for some sass in country music.
Merritt's got the goods. Except "country" may not be big enough a genre.