To love Elvis Costello is to be vehemently opinionated about exactly how much of his output is absolute crap. For some, he jumped the shark immediately after those unfuckwithable first three albums; others draw the line at virtually every possible interval in his 30-year career. But as wildly uneven and capricious as Costello has been, he’s remarkably dependable as a live act, still touring with the most essential two-thirds of his classic backing band, the Attractions, rechristened the Imposters with a different bassist.
Having traveled a couple times before–once to Philadelphia and once to Virginia–to watch Costello about a mile from the stage in larger venues, it was a small thrill to see him play a comparatively intimate May 12 club show right here in Baltimore. It’s easy to take the addition of the boomer-friendly Rams Head Live to the city’s rock venues for granted, but you become more grateful whenever it books an old fogey you happen to be a huge fan of.
With no new product to promote, other than yet another installment in his endless campaign of reissues and greatest hits compilations, Costello announced his intention to treat the night as a tour through his catalog by opening with “Welcome to the Working Week”–song one from side one of his first album. And aside from a handful of detours into his two most recent rock albums, 2002′s When I Was Cruel and 2004′s The Delivery Man, Costello leaned heavily on old favorites from the first decade of his career.
If Costello and his band have a weakness as a live act, it’s their tendency to speed up every song, often steamrolling the subtleties and dynamics that make them great. Thankfully, the band sounded exceptionally patient this time out, only ramping up the momentum when the song called for it. “Watching the Detectives” frequently turns bloated and overdramatic when performed live, but the Imposters played it straight this evening, while Costello subtly milked the pause before the word “heart” at the end of the chorus, drawing it out more with each go-round. Deep down, Costello’s a ham who relishes that his fans hang on his every word, knowing they will notice that he changed the line in “Green Shirt” from “she’s picking out names/ I hope none of them are mine” to “all of them”–even though the change probably didn’t mean a thing.
The night’s most intriguing sequence came when the Imposters played very different renditions of two of the darkest, most frantically intense songs from 1978′s This Year’s Model back to back. “Lipstick Vogue” was painstakingly faithful to the original, as if drummer Pete Thomas had listened to every note of his jaw-dropping performance on the album as many times as the audience had. But what followed was a barely recognizable “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” its tense reggae rhythm replaced by a jangly upbeat arrangement more akin to, say, “Oliver’s Army.”
It’s not uncommon for Costello to play multiple encores, stretching his shows out into the two- or three-hour range, so it was a little surprising when he and the Imposters left the stage for the last time after just 90 minutes. Still, that was after one extraordinarily crowd-pleasing encore that started with “Alison” and ended with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” making it doubtful that many were left wanting much more.