How hot was it in Gotham on Tuesday night? Hot enough that even old sourpuss Elvis Costello couldn’t help but get in touch with his inner Johnny Carson to make a passel of weather-related wisecracks during his sweaty Central Park show. While Costello and his band were afforded top billing, things didn’t really heat up — so to speak — until the guests started arriving onstage.
A somewhat sluggish opening salvo, dominated by songs from Costello’s recent “Delivery Man” album, kicked into higher gear when longtime Dylan sideman Larry Campbell clambered onstage to punch up “Waiting for the End of the World,” giving the song a much more menacing tone than Costello has mustered in recent times.
Emmylou Harris, who’s sharing the bill with Costello on a handful of summer dates, followed Campbell to the stage, her inimitable blend of fragility and authority as evident as ever. Any doubts as to whether the pair would be able to pull off the duet thing were dispelled by the time they got midway through the first of their collaborations — a bluer-than-blue version of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.”
Forays into country (like a version of “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”) or pseudo-country (an encore rendition of the Gram Parsons-inspired Stones chestnut “Wild Horses”) brought out the best in the duo. Venturing outside the twang continuum, as they did on a version of the “Imperial Bedroom” nugget “Indoor Fireworks,” they saw a good bit of their oomph evaporate.
For her handful of solo perfs, Harris didn’t venture too far from her book of standards, but Campbell’s six-string push helped her draw plenty of juice from oft-squeezed tunes like “Red Dirt Girl” and “One of These Days.”
Perhaps loosened up by the humidity, Costello closed the show with a winking, good-natured spate of tunes that commingled favorites from his own catalog with offbeat cover snippets — sneaking a bit of “Suspicious Minds” into “Alison” and punctuating “Pump It Up” with chunks of “Whole Lotta Love.” Those pub-rock roots have seldom shone through more vividly.