The inclusion of three world-class bluegrass soloists does not translate into an Elvis Goes Appalachian turnabout on the initial tour in support of his all-acoustic “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” (Concord), which posted Costello’s highest chart position (No. 13) in 29 years after its June release. Instead, the latest Costello show is a celebration of musicianship and maturity peppered with familiar covers, reworked faves and selections from the new album that, when they’re steamy, sit among the evening’s highlights.
Jerry Douglas’ dobro, Stuart Duncan’s fiddle and Mike Compton’s mandolin — not to mention the high vocal harmonies of rhythm guitarist Jim Lauderdale — made Tuesday’s two-hour show at the Greek Theater a study in vibrant musical colors that enhanced Costello’s still-pristine vocals and extensive vocabulary.
Costello and his musicians have a striking command of the shadings, even when the subject matter turns dark. Bassist Dennis Crouch was impressively ominous on an as-yet-unrecorded tune about a death row prisoner’s final hours; Douglas’ dobro lines dripped like tears onto the melody of “Indoor Fireworks.”
Two-thirds of the new album’s 13 songs made their way into the 27-song set, highlighted by the buoyant “Hidden Shame,” the amusing geographical tongue-twister “Sulphur to Sugarcane” and the boot-heel stomper “Down Among the Wine and Spirits.” The ensemble’s diversity was best exemplified in the transformation of “Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes” into a Tex-Mex waltz that emphasized Jeff Taylor’s accordion; the intricate weaving of instruments in another unrecorded number (“Five Small Words” is the likely title); and the bold and invigorating approach to “Brilliant Mistake.” A sincere and measured ballad treatment of “Everyday I Write the Book” breathed new life into the top 40 tune from 1983’s “Punch the Clock.”
The list of covers read like a jukebox at some Southern hipster juke joint: Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” Merle Haggard’s “Tonight, the Bottle Let Me Down,” the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” Opening act Lucinda Williams joined Costello on the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” after trading couplets on her “Jailhouse Tears,” a bittersweet revenge tune they recorded together on Williams’ “Little Honey” album. (Album producer T Bone Burnett played rhythm guitar with the band during the later encores.)
More than selling countrified Costello as a concept — we first saw that on late ’70s B-sides and 1983’s “Almost Blue” — the concert is a door opener for fans fearing yet another not-quite-committed direction from the singer. Whether he has been accompanied by string quartets, a solo piano or Burt Bacharach, Costello has consistently attempted to build new frames for old masterpieces. The older material has a precise fit here — every tune feels thoughtfully rearranged, with nothing shoehorned in — and in turn that makes the new material more welcoming. That used to be a lure for fans unsure of an artist’s latest work, a method for selling records. It’s anyone’s guess if it can still work.
Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes will play the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, N.Y., on Aug. 29.