He's a little wider around the girth, but this year's model of Elvis Costello still has thick-rimmed glasses and sounds like he never left.
Reunited with a couple of former Attractions and boasting a return to the blistering rock of his proto-punk beginnings, Costello revved and raved an idolizing audience Friday at DTE Energy (formerly Pine Knob) Music Theatre in Clarkston, Mich.
It was nowhere near a sellout — maybe 6,000, all sitting under the canopy; there was nobody on the hill. But everyone there was geared up for a nostalgic and rocky trip down Memory Lane.
Costello and his three-piece band didn't disappoint, even though nearly half the songs were from his latest album, When I Was Cruel.
The smallish crowd reflects the detours Costello's career has taken since he burst on the scene at the height of the British new wave in 1977. He was only in his early-20s when he scored such hits as "Alison," "Accidents Will Happen," "Pump It Up," and "Watching the Detectives," the anthems of an exciting but brief period of pop music history.
Through the years, Costello has turned his attention to country music, British folk, a bit of soul, classical (a recording with soprano Anne Sofie von Otter), and even lounge music (his recording with Burt Bacharach four years ago). But he always seems to want to churn out the raucous rock of his first love, and with the usual suspects, the Attractions.
When I Was Cruel is his first flat-out rocker in six years and the most visceral music he has penned since 1994's Brutal Youth album.
Like that album, which followed a recording with a string quartet, When I Was Cruel comes on the heels of a mellowing-out phase for Costello. Where his musical muse takes him next is anybody's guess — he's still just 47, although he seems to have been on the scene for a very long time.
For now, it's great to have the ornery, unruly Elvis Costello back. And especially in the company of keyboard player Steve "Nieve" Nason and drummer Pete Thomas, two-thirds of the old Attractions.
Rounding out the band, which is called The Imposters, is bassist Davey Faragher. Costello's on-again, off-again relationship with original bassist Bruce Thomas is apparently off again.
The Elvis Costello who tore through "Radio, Radio" and "Pump It Up" on Friday was reminiscent of the one who appeared at Masonic Temple in Detroit back in 1979. This one talks to the audience more, probably needing the extra little breaks between songs.
He still has the Chuck Berry-like guitar mannerisms and geeky stage presence.
But he's not so much the angry young man anymore, and he even says mature things. Like the comment after a warm reception to his signature song, "Alison": "That's the way we like it — grown men weeping and women throwing roses."
His new material doesn't sound the least bit out of step with the two- and three-minute bursts of pop energy of the circa-1979 stuff. They're still compact little story songs in tight melodic structures.
There are even some future classics, judging by the audience's participation in a couple of new songs, "Alibi" and "Spooky Girlfriend."
The new album's first single, "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," was one of the concert's high points. So was "Episode of Blonde," a fractured fairy-tale which Costello recites with animated intensity.
It's great having him back. Let's hope it's not another six or eight years before the passion is rekindled.
Actor-turned-rocker Billy Bob Thornton opened the show with selections from his debut CD, Private Radio.
He performed covers of The Byrds and Hank Williams, along his own country-boogie and country-rock originals. One of the best was "That Mountain," featuring a mandolin solo that Thornton described as "hillbilly music" and doubled as a tribute to his late friend, actor Jim Varney.
The touching "Angelina" was written for his wife, actress Angelina Jolie. Thornton has an engaging honesty on stage, and his Arkansas drawl and gaunt appearance remind you of The Band's Levon Helm.