Elvis, Definitely Alive
Costello Plumbs the Depths of His Songbook For a High-Energy Show at the 9:30 Club

Monday, May 21, 2007

Elvis Costello has more musical personalities than Tupac has posthumous albums, but the one who turned up at the 9:30 club Friday is the most consistently satisfying: Call him the Shut Up and Sing Elvis. He never took off his black suit jacket or his black sunglasses, or loosened his black tie. He simply strode onstage and launched into "Welcome to the Working Week," smash-cutting 13 more songs together before he even said "good evening."

Elvis seems like a pretty contented guy these days, but it's good to see he can reconnect so easily with the pencil-necked, amphetamine-addled Angry Young Man of 1978, who stared out from the posters and T-shirts for sale at the back of the club.

All but a half-dozen of the set's 33 (!) songs were more than 25 years old. But if you're going to look backward, there are worse ways to do it: Although focused on the first third of his career (from which the albums have just been reissued for the umpteenth time), the show's breathless first half boasted so many rarities ("Lovers' Walk," "Riot Act," "Shabby Doll") that it never felt predictable. Even night's best cover, "Hey Bulldog," was about as obscure as a Beatles song can be.

Costello's willingness to fling open the back pages of his extraordinary songbook is one of the qualities that make him such a superb live performer. Of course, his daring would be in vain if the tunes didn't kill, but aided by the Imposters, Costello drove home the curios and the kinda-hits with such unrelenting kinetic force that you barely had time to remember the chorus of one tune before he counted off the next. A solo take of the seminal unrequited-love "Alison," its melody altered just enough to foil the singer-alongers, followed by the plaintive gem "Sleep of the Just," provided the only breather.

Late in the evening, New Orleans pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint showed up to tickle the keys on "The River in Reverse" and "Monkey to Man," before singing his own "Yes We Can Can."

Tickets could be bought only with the credit card that sponsored the show. Costello, who used to refuse endorsement deals, introduced only one song all night -- the new "American Gangster Time" -- saying it was "about a mercenary [expletive]." When you rock this hard, you can get away with pretty much anything.

-- Chris Klimek

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