In the first two-and-a-half years of his recording career, Elvis Costello released three of the best pop-rock records of the New Wave era, culminating with the grand flourish of Armed Forces. Some three decades later he shows no sign of slowing, recently releasing three discs in a similar timeframe that showcase his varied interests, inspirations and aspirations. While the Sondheim-esque romance of North and the classical ambition of Il Sogno were not greeted as unqualified successes, The Delivery Man proved Costello still has some of his best music ahead of him. His relentless, committed performance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater proved he’s still quite the crowd pleaser, nicely sampling from his career while wisely focusing on his strongest, most confident work.
Costello strolled in with a straw cowboy hat and smart dark suit and launched into an urgent rendition of the first song from his first album, “Welcome To The Working Week.” Without pause he fast-forwarded to the ragged fury of “Uncomplicated” from Blood and Chocolate, then back to “Radio Radio” from This Year’s Model. The eclectic selections continued throughout the two-and-a-half hour set, with Costello rarely pausing for a breath before beginning his next song, as if he had too much ground to cover in too little time.
If this weren’t enough to set a retrospective tone for the show, Costello’s band (now cheekily dubbed The Imposters) featured two-thirds of The Attractions, with keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas joined by Davey Faragher on bass. Their shared experience added detail to the songs, with Nieve’s rococo flourishes offsetting Costello’s blunt guitar lines.
While the band played all the essential tunes, like “Alison” and Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding”, two of the evening’s true highlights came from overlooked catalog entries. “Rocking Horse Road” (from Brutal Youth) enjoyed one of the more nuanced performances of the evening, rising from bittersweet romance to punchy rancor. Similarly, “When I Was Cruel” went from cynicism to melancholy, segueing perfectly into the noir skank of “Watching The Detectives”. By the end of the evening, after such a committed consideration of a remarkable body of work, there were no complaints when the band skipped the formality of an encore.