Elvis Costello wasn’t in a celebratory mood at the start the House of Blues Wednesday night. Apparently, reissuing his catalog for the third time (this time on Hip-O, following in the footsteps of Rykodisc and Rhino; the selling point this time is their availability on iTunes) and the Universal imprint’s release of the two “hit” collections “The Best of Elvis Costello: The First Ten Years” and “Rock and Roll Music,” wasn’t enough to put him in a good humor.
With an exemplary career that’s allowed him to explore jazz, classical, country and R&B, perhaps Costello doesn’t feel like revisiting his past; this first show on a 10-city tour (which stops at Gotham’s Nokia Theater on May 16) opened up with a workmanlike, hour-long set that rushed through 17 songs with barely a word to the sold-out aud. (He did introduce a new song, “American Gangster Time,” about being a “mercenary bastard”).
This being Costello, there were moments worth hearing, most memorably “Alibi,” a deep cut from 2002’s “When I Was Cruel” that sounds like an acid-dipped Sondheim ballad sung over a splintered Neil Young guitar riff.
But when he returned for the first of three encores, which together lasted almost as long as the set, it was obvious something had changed. He still looked like he’d rather be anywhere than on stage, impatiently waiting for his crew to switch his guitars and spending most of the time between songs with his back to the crowd, but starting with an affectionate cover of “All I’ve Got To Do,” a lesser known early Beatle song with John Lennon channeling Arthur Alexander, his singing and the playing of the Imposters became more playful, recasting some of his best known songs.
While not as radical as Dylan’s reworkings, they brought a freshness to the music that was missing earlier. “Alison,” performed solo, gained new melodic flourishes, especially in the middle eight, that gives the chestnut a Rodgers and Hammerstein sheen. He subtly rephrased the verses of “Pump It Up,” landing on different beats, making the song sound even more breathless; and turns “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea” almost unrecognizable, transferring the song’s signature, stuttering guitar to Steve Nieve’s keyboards.
When the evening ended with a roaring “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” it was possible to believe that the show was more than a way for Costello to pick up a paycheck. This music may be part of his past, but, for at least a few songs, it sounded as exciting as it did 30 years ago.