Concert review: Elvis Costello & The Imposters with Charlie Sexton | 01.16.24, The Factory (with photo gallery)

Photo of Elvis Costello & the Imposters by Laura Jerele

To describe Elvis Costello as prolific is an understatement. His catalog begins with some quintessential sounds of the late ‘70s and ‘80s as Elvis Costello and the Attractions, but it has evolved along a number of threads, including solo projects, seemingly infinite collaborations, and his second most productive configuration in Elvis Costello and the Imposters. As a commercial radio junkie in my teens, I am well familiar with the big singles, but it wasn’t until he released his first recordings with the Imposters—The Delivery Man—that I got drawn into one of his albums in its entirety. I heard releases here and there in the years that followed, but I didn’t dig too deep again until his 2013 collaboration with The Roots on Wise Up Ghost.

It was from this background that I looked forward to seeing Costello with The Imposters, hoping for more of the bluesy ballads of The Delivery Man and expecting classics as well as some surprises. After Friday’s performance, I don’t know that it mattered much to me what he chose to play. Elvis Costello is one of those musicians who could probably spend the night singing advertising jingles and I would still be moved by the emotion in his voice, because whatever he does, he does with such sincerity. Luckily for us, he’s a masterful songwriter with a keen eye for others’ brilliant compositions. More than half of the material was unfamiliar to me, but I enjoyed every bit of it.

About a third of the set was composed of familiar favorites, including a rousing “Radio Radio,” preceded by his commentary on the value of a good DJ in combing through troves of musical creations and curating for the listeners only the best of the best. Dressed in a red fedora and matching red shirt beneath a black jacket, his hits such as “Everyday I Write the Book” and “Pump It Up” consistently brought the nearly-full house to its feet, bouncing in their seat space, arms waving, reveling in the sounds presented to them on the radio some forty years ago and still resonating today. On these songs, it sometimes felt to me like the fidelity in execution was less important than the fidelity to the catalog. To my ear, his voice seemed to reach for the notes and land just shy; his pace seemed to lag ever so slightly. But the joy in the lifelong fans clearly justified the effort. He strummed away and we reveled in the nostalgia.

About halfway through the set, “Watching the Detectives” marked a turning point as the lights dimmed, Steve Nieve moved from piano to melodica, and the classic song was stretched out to advance slowly, composing a perfectly film noir vibe. Drummer Pete Thomas kept a tense, tiptoeing, light-touch rhythm alongside bassist Davey Faragher, who also joined in for background vocals. Costello followed his verses with creepy echoes of himself – “he’s so cute / he’s so cute / he’s so cute” – as if mumbling to himself in rising tones and intensity, adding disorientation and delirium to the dark scene. It was entrancing, the most expansive version of a song we would see all night, which otherwise kept things direct and to the point.

Riding that improvisational wave, Costello swapped his red hat for a grey one (or so it appeared under the stage lights), and set aside his guitar to take a seat at the piano bench. The lights brightened as he marched across the keys and sang his heart out in the blues club moment I had hoped for. This gorgeous piece of heartbroken writing set us on a path of piano-centric tunes, much to my delight, including “Wonder Woman,” cowritten with Allen Toussaint, and “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” by Mose Allison, as Costello moved to the other side of the stage and picked up yet another hat—this time a tan brimmed that had been awaiting him onstage.

The crowd’s exuberance earned us a lengthy encore of hits, including “Allison,” for which he requested Charlie Sexton’s help to pick out the delicate intro, inspiring a whole host of heartsick teenager memories. With the entire audience out of their seats and on their feet, he charged through “Pump it Up” and didn’t have to ask us even once to join in on the timeless anthem, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” For the big closer, he brought back a touch of that mid-set intrigue for an especially smoky version of “I Want You.” 

In a sign of a truly life-enhancing show, I am now digging through Costello’s vast career as a band member, solo artist, collaborator, and band member again, wondering what other treasures have I slept on in the ten-year span between albums I know so well and everything that came before. As befitting an artist with a 45-year career, some of the old songs sounded a little rusty live, but no less genuine. Remarkable, however, is Costello’s ability to consistently find new projects, new ways of presenting himself, new lights to shine on his talents, and new partners to engage in artistic creation. He gave us a solid two and a half hours of basking in memories and wondering at the power he can summon as a crooner. And he demonstrated his true talents—songwriting, consistently, continuously, and creating something wonderfully new and old at the same time. | Courtney Dowdall 

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