It’s been a long time since the thrills at an Elvis Costello concert came from new songs. During his 2002 When I Was Cruel tour, his latest tunes were always upstaged by his classics. And it’s hard to image 2003 audiences getting too excited by material from North, a dull classical-pop song cycle that fans rejected outright.
It speaks volumes about the longevity of those records that, during his recent stop in Milwaukee—his first in five years—Costello played only a lone song from Cruel and none from North. Judging by the crowd’s response, though, songs from 2004’s Delivery Man will become staples in Costello’s set. These rollicking, country-rock numbers sound like they were written for live performance and Costello, decked out in a cowboy hat and silver boots, was prepared to sell them with everything he had. He performed each with a vigor and venom rarely heard since 1986’s Blood & Chocolate, and the audience couldn’t have been more receptive. They were as genuinely boisterous and festive upon hearing the Delivery Man rocker “Monkey to Man” as they were hearing “Pump it Up”.
Indeed, the new songs overshadowed many of his classics, which were at an admitted disadvantage. How could any rendition of “Radio Radio” compete with its infamous 1977 Saturday Night Live performance? Or, how, after performing the song at almost every show for the last two decades, could Costello be expected to sing “Alison” with any real passion? At times Costello and his band—the Imposters, featuring Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas with Cracker bassist Davey Faragher—seemed to be playing these classics out of obligation, speeding up songs like “Watching the Detectives” and “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” not to rock them harder, but simply to get through them faster.
To keep things interesting, the band worked in a list of covers, or parts of other songs, that read like an incomplete list of Costello’s influences. “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”, transitioned into a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”; “Alison” led into Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds”; “Monkey to Man” ended with an homage to Toots Hibbert’s “Monkey Man”. Elsewhere, during solos, Costello’s guitar quoted a few bars of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Feel Pretty”, and Nieve played off the iconic riff from the Rolling Stone’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.
The show provided perhaps the best argument against encores I’ve seen. Instead of shattering any momentum the band had developed during the set by leaving stage and going through the robotic ritual of making the audience clap until they returned, Costello individually introduced the Imposters during what seemed like a set-closing song and then, well, just kept on playing. Every time they finished another song, Costello would run over and consult his bandmates (well, at least Nieve and Thomas—Faragher seemed curiously out of the loop) and pick another they felt like playing.
When all was said and done, they’d played a whopping 34 songs (36 if you count the full covers), ending with a gentle, acoustic rendition of the Oscar-nominated ballad “Scarlet Tide”. During the song’s climax, Costello walked to the side of the stage, far away from the microphone’s reach, and sang an a cappella verse. The crowd fell silent as the legend’s voice filled the theater in all of its flawed, natural glory. In a large, impersonal venue, Costello was still able to deliver this moment of intimacy—it was the perfect note to end the night on.