Elvis Costello is calling his current tour with the Imposters “Hello Again,” but a more apt title might be “Not F—king Around.” There are no colorful projections this time, no backup singers and no emphasis on the more baroque side of his catalog. This is just him, his longtime band the Imposters, plus Austin, Tex., guitarist (and former Bob Dylan bandmate) Charlie Sexton playing as if they have points to prove.
I’ve seen Costello more than any other major performer, and the last two times were the worst. He and the Imposters played the Chicago Theatre at the end of October 2016 on his “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” tour, and the ornate arrangements turned to mush in the astoundingly bad sound. I sat relatively front and center, and I felt like I was at the back of the United Center.
Two years later he and the Imposters played the Vic, and I was excited to see him at such a small venue and stood near the stage. He still sounded miles away, and something was off about the whole performance. His tendency to sing behind the beat sounded less like a stylistic move than a struggle to keep up, his pitch was all over the place, and the band played fewer songs than on the previous evenings. I was grateful he had rebounded from cancer treatment earlier that year but also was concerned.
I missed Costello and the Imposters’ return to the Chicago Theatre in November 2019 and was eager if a bit nervous to see them last Wednesday night at the same venue. Part of my optimism stemmed from his new song, “Magnificent Hurt,” a growling rocker with a vintage Steve Nieve Vox organ line that, if it didn’t evoke This Year’s Model, at least conjured up fond memories of Momofuku, Costello’s last almost-flat-out rock album from 2008. A quick YouTube search of fan-shot live clips indicated that his upcoming album, The Boy Named If (due Jan. 14), will continue in that harder-edged vein.
The fact that Costello was performing so many new songs was encouraging in itself. At Wednesday's concert the band played four songs from Costello’s 2020 album Hey Clockface and six from The Boy Named If “so you can fall in love with them twice,” Costello quipped. That’s 10 out of the show’s 26 songs, not a nostalgia artist's ratio. As the album does, the Clockface songs ranged from the snarling (“No Flag”) to the old-timey (“Hey Clockface/How Can You Face Me?”), with Costello singing the latter and others into a low-fi bullet microphone.
The Boy Named If songs included “Penelope Halfpenny,” a big-riffed, driving rocker; “The Death of Magic Thinking,” with its pounding, runaway-wagon beat somewhere between “Lover’s Walk” and the Buzzcocks’ “Moving Away from the Pulsebeat”; and “Farewell, OK,” the album-opener and show-closer that recalled Costello’s cover of Little Richard’s “Bama Lama Bama Loo.” This was Costello at his most direct and least fussy, and I look forward to hearing more.
Costello pulled out some fan favorites (“Pump It Up,” “Alison, “Watching the Detectives,” “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”) but still mines all areas of his vast catalog. He belted out “Either Side of the Same Town,” a soaring soul ballad worthy of James Carr, from 2004’s The Delivery Man; and “The Comedians,” originally given a chirpy arrangement on Goodbye Cruel World before getting an appropriately dramatic treatment on Roy Orbison’s 1989 comeback album, Mystery Girl. Costello played the Orbison arrangement.
Even more popular songs, such as “Every Day I Write the Book” and “Brilliant Mistake,” were given facelifts, the former performed as a simmering soul ballad, the latter transformed into a slow cha-cha that segued in and out of a cover of Al Dubin’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (the title a key phrase in Costello’s song).
The sound was much better this time around, as were Costello and the band. Nieve still covers miles of stylistic ground on his array of keyboards, though he’s less front-and-center than on the Imperial Bedroom/Look Now tours. Bassist Davey Faragher doesn’t dance around the melodies like Bruce Thomas used to, but he pushes the beat in lockstep with drummer Pete Thomas and is Costello’s secret weapon on backing vocals. Pete Thomas remains a beast, his fills precise, powerful and instantly recognizable.
Costello’s singing was strong and sharp, and if he can’t push as much breath into his high notes at age 67 as he could at 27, so be it. I do wish he’d get on top of a rocker such as “High Fidelity” instead of letting the band surge ahead of him, but he sounded like himself throughout the concert, and that’s why you go. I happily would’ve heard him sing “Either Side of the Same Town” twice.
More striking was how Costello, who used to refer to himself as the Little Hands of Concrete, pushed his guitar to the fore. Just as Dylan (who happened to be playing blocks away at the Auditorium Theatre) discovered the joys of trading leads with the ever-fluid Sexton, so has Costello. Their guitars growled at each other amid the mid-tempo thump of “The Boy Named If,” the two exchanged barbs on “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” and soloed shoulder to shoulder on “Peace, Love and Understanding.” Sexton may have been the “special guest” but felt integral as he stood in the back and added lyricism and punch to songs old and new.
Costello could never recapture the excitement of when he kept raising the stakes from album to album in the late ’70s and ’80s, but he approached this tour as he did the much earlier ones. I haven’t seen him play so many unreleased songs since a 1984 solo show at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia when he offered stark versions of what turned slick on Goodbye Cruel World.
After my experiences at the more recent shows, I feared that Costello was closing a book. I was exhilarated to learn that he's once again opening (and writing) new ones.
Here's the Nov. 3 Chicago Theatre set list:
Heart of the City (Nick Lowe cover)
Green Shirt (Armed Forces)
No Flag (Hey Clockface)
Either Side of the Same Town (The Delivery Man)
Hetty O’Hara Confidential (Hey Clockface)
Hey, Clockface/How Can You Face Me? (Hey Clockface)
The Death of Magic Thinking (The Boy Named If)
Mystery Dance (My Aim Is True)
The Boy Named If (The Boy Named If)
Motel Matches (Get Happy!!)
Penelope Halfpenny (The Boy Named If)
Everyday I Write the Book (Punch the Clock)
High Fidelity (Get Happy!!)
What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (The Boy Named If)
Watching the Detectives (My Aim Is True)
The Comedians (Goodbye Cruel World/Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl)
Brilliant Mistake/Boulevard of Broken Dreams (King of America/Al Dubin song)
Newspaper Pane (Hey Clockface)
(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea (This Year’s Model)
Magnificent Hurt (The Boy Named If)
I Want You (Blood & Chocolate)
Pump it Up (This Year’s Model)
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding (Armed Forces/Nick Lowe cover)
Alison/I Hope (My Aim Is True/ Robert Charles Guidry & Stanley Lewis song)
Farewell, OK (The Boy Named If)
(If you want to dig deeper into Costello, click here for my Caropop interview with former Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas.)