Buying a ticket for an Elvis Costello show requires the informed consumer to ask which Elvis is going to show up. Will it be the tuxedo-wearing crooner-with-orchestra Elvis? The acoustic-guitar-with-piano-accompaniment-by-Steve Nieve Elvis? And if it is indeed the rock Elvis, will it be the petulant Elvis, like the one who played Wolf Trap in 2002, cut short the show and bitched about the stiff audience in his tour blog? Or will it be the generous, tireless, fun-to-be-with Elvis who returned to Wolf Trap in 2005 and 2006 for a glorious pair of shows with Emmylou Harris and Allen Toussaint, respectively?
The Elvis who turned up the 9:30 Club Friday night was closer to the latter, but with modifications: Call him the Shut Up and Sing Elvis. He never took off his black suit jacket or his black sunglasses, nor loosened his black tie. He simply strode onstage and launched into "Welcome to the Working Week," smash-cutting 13 more songs together before he even said "good evening." Elvis seems like a pretty contented guy these days, but it's good to see he can reconnect so easily with the pencil-necked, amphetamine-addled Angry Young Man of 1978, who stared out from the posters and T-shirts for sale at the back of the club.
All but about a half-dozen of the set's 33 (!) songs were more than 20 years old. But if you're going to look backward, there are worse ways to do it: Although focused on the first third of his career (the albums from the period have just been reissued for the umpteenth time), the show's breathless first half boasted so many rarities ("Lovers Walk," "Strict Time" "Shabby Doll," "Secondary Modern," "The Beat" — I could go on) that it never felt predictable. Even the night's best cover, "Hey Bulldog," was about as obscure as a Beatles song can be.
Costello's willingness to fling open the back pages of his extraordinary songbook is one of the qualities that make him such a superb live performer. Of course, his adventurousness would be in vain if the tunes didn't kill, but aided by the Imposters, Costello drove home the curios and the kinda-hits with such unrelenting kinetic force that you barely had time to remember the chorus of one tune before he counted off the next. The slow-burning "Riot Act," one of the many tunes I'd never heard live in at least a dozen prior Elvis shows I've attended, and one I've always wanted to hear, closed the first set a mere 70 minutes in.
Although I was afraid for a moment this might signal the return of petulant Elvis, it turned out to be a brief but necessary rest, because the first of four encore sets was a fusillade of coked-up cookers from the cocaine era: "I Hope You're Happy Now," "No Action," "You Belong to Me," "Waiting for the End of the World," "High Fidelity," "Uncomplicated," "Radio, Radio," "The Imposter.," You could be forgiven for assuming Elvis was trying to give Pete Thomas a heart attack, but Petey never wavered.
A solo take of the seminal unrequited-love lament "Alison" came next, its melody altered just enough to foil the singer-alongers. Elvis then introduced the Imposters individually as they retook the stage, putting in a nice plug for Steve Nieve's an-eternity-in-the-making Welcome to the Voice album, which was released last week. They next performed "Sleep of the Just," from King of America. Those two tunes, along with "Brilliant Mistake" and "Country Darkness" in the first set, were the only slow songs, giving the gig a rocker-to-ballad ratio of about 7:1.
When Elvis next announced a special guest, I had a flutter of hope that it would be Emmylou Harris, but Allen Toussaint was a more than worthy runner-up. He tickled the keys on "The River in Reverse" and "Monkey to Man," before singing his own "Yes We Can Can."
Tickets could be bought only using the credit card that sponsored the show. Costello, who used to refuse endorsements, introduced only one song all night — the new "American Gangster Time" — saying it was "about a mercenary bastard." His words, not mine. When you rock this hard, you can get away with pretty much anything.