At the start of Elvis Costello’s concert, it was hard to believe a 50-year-old man was onstage. Costello and the Imposters played with the fervor and breakneck speed of his late ’70s concerts, running through eight songs in the first 30 minutes. And even when the pace slackened, Costello and his band sounded revitalized.
His most recent album, “The Delivery Man” (Lost Highway), is his most successful foray into country soul, a raggedly comfortable tour through the swamps of Louisiana and Muscle Shoals, Ala., and its gritty swing informs the entire show. The bile of “Radio Radio” is more considered, cut with the rollicking New Orleans rhythm in Pete Thomas’ drumming. The stiffness that characterized the country of 1981’s “Almost Blue” album is gone; Costello sings “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Sweet Dreams” with an ease and grace.
He’s also playing guitar with a newfound enthusiasm. His solos on the epic “Needle Time” and “I Want You” show how much he picked up from former band mate Marc Ribot — their complex jagged construction and gorgeously warm, overdriven tone are impressive. Steve Naive on keyboards and Theremin, remains a wonderfully resourceful musician, adding the perfect flourishes to the songs, while Pete Thomas remains one of the premiere drummers working today.
They find ways to bring life to even the oldest songs in Costello’s catalog. “Allison” gains a country lilt, and “Clubland” takes a Latin turn; “Heart of the City” (written and originally recorded by Nick Lowe) is an infectious joy. They also find unexpected congruences — the sophisticated pop of his Bacharach collaboration “In The Darkest Places” segues easily into the cheater’s ballad “Either Side Of the Same Town,” one of two brilliant Dan Penn-styled songs on the new album.
David Lee Roth once complained that the reason why rock critics preferred Elvis Costello to Roth is because most rock critics looked like Costello. Leaving aside the satisfying fact that Costello has aged better than Roth (a statement that works on just about every level), the real reason critics react so strongly to Costello is because, after seeing a show as keenly intelligent in its assessment of his career as this, it’s possible to believe he thinks like a rock critic.
Costello and the Imposters play New York’s Beacon Theater April 22 and are scheduled to appear with Emmylou Harris as part of Central Park’s Summerstage program on July 19.