It’s not often that Elvis Costello tours without a new album to support. When he has, the super-prolific songwriter has left his setlist to fate with his always-entertaining Spinning Songbook wheel of songs.
Currently, he’s taken the wheel himself, by featuring one fabled album from his career and building a show around that in the current excursion titled “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers.”
While he manages to cover the bulk of notable work, which his record company quickly labeled “masterpiece” upon release (to his embarrassment), Costello varied from other recent full-album recitals from Brian Wilson to Bruce Springsteen, by dropping a couple of its 15 tracks and spreading them around a very generous set that offset the contemplative “Bedroom” songs with early career blasts and crowd favorites.
Most all of it stayed well into the past. Aside from a trio of fascinating songs from an as yet unproduced new musical based on Budd Shulberg’s “A Face in the Crowd,” his newest recorded offering was one from his decade-old collaboration album with Allen Toussaint.
Nostalgia might have been a little on the mind of the performer, as he bounded on stage in red hat to match his red Gibson guitar, fronting a lean trio that featured two of his longtime Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas as well as two backup singers.
“It’s been 38 years since we last played the Warner,” he said early in the set, referencing a set so significant, it was included on a deluxe edition of “This Year’s Model” three decades later. “Back then we’d play 25 minutes of music that on a good night we’d get down to 15.”
He made up for that Thursday with a near-Springsteen sized set of three straight hours and 34 songs all-told, from the rarity that opened it, “The Town Where Time Stood Still,” to the anthem that closed it, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” — his one cover song of the night that he had also long since made his own.
The nuances and turns of the brooding “Imperial Bedroom” collection were certainly on board, with standout versions of “The Long Honeymoon” (described as a sequel to “Watching the Detectives” that preceded it), the sublime “Town Cryer,” and the timeless “Almost Blue” with acoustic guitar and Nieve on his purple Steinbeck grand piano.
The supplementary songs didn’t literally connect with “Imperial Bedroom” — there were hits to be played, from “Allison” to “Everyday I Write the Book.” But many often did, such as “This House is Empty Now,” from his 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
Costello said he joined Bacharach to create another dozen songs five years ago, but those haven’t come to light. He did reveal three songs from a proposed musical based on the book and movie “A Face in the Crowd,” with a book written by Sarah Ruhl. Playing these songs largely solo on the purple Steinway, Costello conveyed a kind of New Orleans roll like that of Randy Newman if not Toussaint; the title song itself coming off akin to the “Preservation” era of the Kinks (who also wrote a song called “(A) Face in the Crowd”).
A thoughtful and accomplished songwriter, Costello at 62 could find himself in a late career purgatory of trying to keep up with the intricately complex wordplay he put to a furious pace as a young man, the words flashing by on a monitor meant to look like a music stand.
But bolstered by his top rate musicians from the old days, the prestigiously talented Nieve and the endlessly rat-a-tat of Thomas, he kept on top of this game, revving it up as needed at the end with things like “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Pump It Up.”
The mix did no favors to Costello’s lone guitar, distorting it when it was able to be heard at all. And his strong croon doesn’t venture as high as it once did, so it was smart to have bassist Davey Faragher arrange appropriate vocal harmonies from backing singers named Kitten Kuroi and Yahzarah.
Nieve was busy, too, creating backing tracks, arranging and playing piano to things like the string-heavy “Town Cryer” for live performance.
One thing that bound the show together were the painting backdrops that adapted many familiar Costello album covers into the kind of playful, Picasso-inspired work that the artist Barney Bubbles used on the iconic cover of “Imperial Bedroom.” If the songs didn’t always sonically sync, the visual approach certainly did.
And instead of buzzing out of the theater after 15 minutes, Costello seemed happy to stay and keep playing, picking up top hat and cane and dancing by at one point before it was over as if to underscore his status as “beloved entertainer.”
The set list for Elvis Costello & The Imposters Thursday was:
- “The Town Where Time Stood Still”
- “Lipstick Vogue”
- “On Your Way Down”
- “The Loved Ones”
- “Accidents Will Happen”
- “You’ll Never Be a Man”
- “Tears Before Bedtime”
- “Moods for Moderns”
- “Shabby Doll”
- “Green Shirt”
- “Human Hands”
- “Watching the Detectives”
- “The Long Honeymoon”
- “This House is Empty Now”
- “Pills and Soap”
- “Hand in Hand”
- “High Fidelity”
- “You Little Fool”
- “Pidgin English”
- “Shot With His Own Gun”
- “Almost Blue”
- “Kid About It”
- “…And in Every Home”
- “Beyond Belief”
- “Man Out of Time”
- “Town Cryer”
- “Every Day I Write the Book”
- “Blood & Hot Sauce”
- “A Face in the Crowd”
- “American Mirror”
- “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”
- “Pump It Up”
- “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding”