Elvis Costello might have kicked off his career as an angry young man during the punk and new wave era — which he always stood a few steps apart from, but he's often traded on a worldly adult wisdom as much as youthful impetuousness over the course of his 30-plus years making records. This year, the singer came back around to his love of American and Nashville first exhibited on his unusual solo album King of America in 1986 with the new Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
Costello has aged well — his restless journeyman mindset has had him trying and usually succeeding with every genre from pop to jazz to classical. For his Ravinia gig, he brought a seven-piece band of Nashville aces and studio vets including country/bluegrass/Grammy winning singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale (looking a bit like George Jones in a western suit and greying wings of hair) and the dobro maniac Jerry Douglas along with double-bass, accordion, fiddle and electric mandolin.
Over the course of two-plus hours and more than two dozen songs, Costello gave his newest material from Secret, Profane & Sugarcane its due — sounding more or less convincing as a superb student of country, folk and daubs of jazz. Costello rollicked, rocked, strummed and deftly switched guitars with energy — sometimes wearing a fedora that looked purple under the stage lights. Lauderdale lent his vox, acoustic guitar and air of authenticity to the set. New album cuts such as "All Time Doll" were top-heavy in the first hour, but in the second Costello cut the set up with classics ("Indoor Fireworks" from King of America and surprising cover tunes "Femme Fatale" and the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil"). He and his band rarely faltered — even when approaching and repurposing Costello's signature songs for the string-band (which performed sans percussion of any kind). But when they did drop the ball it was all Costello's fault for trying to bring songs in that didn't fit. Costello's voice may be able to change costumes at will, but some of his tunes can't be dressed to match.
"Everyday I Write the Book" may be a slide of slick '80s pop-soul in its original version, but last night it was lackluster, with its hooky chorus turned into a dour lament — it was painful to hear. And near the end of the night, "Alison" was perfectly gorgeous except for a folky guitar turnaround that felt like a tacked on detail. Those are small complaints.
Costello more than made up with his well-honed stage banter and storytelling. He threatened to change careers, "I've gone back to the family business of horse racing tips," joked with us about the weather requiring "hip flasks or unhip flasks," shared a tale of a 19th European star's raucous tour of the south and reminded us that he and Nick Lowe performed with Johnny Cash back in the '70s. Costello is as natural with an entertaining yarn as he is at ease with American music. His vision of American music isn't that of a purist — he and the Sugarcanes dug into Keith Richards's "Happy" around 9:45pm and make it rock.
It might have been a damp and oddly chilly night at Ravinia — I'd guess they sold more Ravinia-logoed fleeces than usual. The chill thinned out the crowd and sent the picnic people home well before show's end, but Costello and band had a warm glow about them. He may not stay in one place for long, but when he's there, he's in the moment.