Health scare, schmealth scare. Elvis Costello’s run of shows in California this week proved that he’s in more than fighting fettle, on a tour that’s being characterized most nights by set lists of peak-Springsteenian proportions, including a 2-hour-54-minute, 33-song performance at L.A.’s Wiltern Thursday night that counted as one of his more epic shows, locally or probably otherwise. “They’re only being nice to me because they think I might die,” he quipped in apparent reference to his band the night before, early into an only slightly shorter show at Anaheim’s House of Blues. After an operation that caused some canceled summer dates, Costello has insisted he isn’t “battling” anything. But any performer in his 60s faces a struggle with, if nothing else, stasis. That, he’s quite handily licked.
This sense of leaving it all out on the stage isn’t a new thing: Costello has been elongating his shows with the Imposters to the two-and-a-half-hour point and beyond for at least the past decade now. But if there is some added wind in his sails now, that and the “sold out” messages on the marquees may have something to do with the enraptured response from the fan base and critics to his October release, “Look Now,” his best-reviewed album in 20 years. At the Wiltern, during what turned out to be a 14-song encore, Costello kept holding up his index finger, in the “one more?” sign. That wasn’t to inquire if the crowd wanted one more, period, but to rhetorically inquire if they’d take one more from the new album, since he ultimately ended up playing 11 out of 12 songs from “Look Now,” for the first and probably only time on the tour. (He kept the new song to seven in Anaheim, and eight in Saturday night’s San Francisco show.) That kind of indulgence is the hallmark of a “friends and family” show, with the rest of the Wiltern audience being the beneficiary as a show that started fairly on time with no opening act managed to slightly bust curfew.
What was open to question going into the tour was how well the “Look Now” material would mesh with the bread-and-butter of Costello’s shows, which has traditionally been those furious songs from the first four albums. “Look Now” is a fairly genteel album, closer to his Burt Bacharach collaborations (and actually including a few fresh examples of the same) than “The Beat.” But there was a recent precedent for this kind of challenge: the 2017 tour focused around a revival of one of his fussier historical albums, 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom,” which provided a model for how to mix the slow and the furious. One key isthe sheer length of the shows: When you’re pushing past the 150-minute mark, there’s breathing room for a breadth of material, so early post-punk fury and sophisticated show-tune-type material don’t always have to directly juxtapose.
But it also helps to have a musical through line, and not just the nimble consistency provided by career-long sidemen Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas and his bass player of nearly two decades now, Davey Faragher. The factor that went perhaps the longest way in uniting new and old material was the presence of backing vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, who were first brought on board for last year’s “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” tour. The “Look Now” album was reverse-engineered from that, in a way, to incorporate their presence, and on the “Look Now and Then” tour, as this outing has been dubbed, they feel like an indispensible part of the unit. That’s even when they’re adding female BGV to songs you never could have imagined withstanding them, like “This Year’s Girl,” “The Beat” and “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea,” songs about youthful estrangement and nervousness about girls that suddenly, improbably benefit from having actual women on ‘em. Go figure.
But then, “Look Now” is Costello’s most female-centric album yet, and not just for employing prominent female vocals for only the second time in his career (the first having been his brief flirtation with them in the Afrodiziak/”Every Day I Write the Book” era 35 years ago). At least half the songs on the album are written from a female viewpoint, which is why Costello frequently went into “Storytellers” mode in introducing them in concert — not to explain how he wrote them, but to actually set up the short stories that transpire within them. Of course, knowing an audience’s patience, he peppered these explanations of the songs’ narratives with gags, largely about the evil that men do to women — misdeeds explored more dramatically in “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter,” in which a shattered divorcee is moving onto the dating scene, or “Photographs Can Lie,” in which a daughter deals with the legacy of her beloved father’s infidelity. “Under Lime,” one of the new album’s more male-centric songs, was introduced as a sequel to an older number, “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” — which he performed a verse and chorus of — with the fading 1930s star seen in that song now caught up in a dance of seduction in a TV dressing room in the ‘50s. “They put him in the company of a young idealistic woman the kind who’s a little romantic about the old guys,” he said, pausing a beat for the laugh to slowly roll in. “I’m not saying anything.” (He added to the meta-ness there by describing the Jimmie character as someone who’s “trying to rid the world of alcohol, by drinking it,” a line he’s frequently used to refer to his own habits in the ‘70s and ‘80s.)
There aren’t a lot of songs on “Look Now” that inherently “rock,” but beyond the piano-based ballads, there are some that definitely swing — most notably “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” which has earned its place amid the crush of faster-paced or funkier material in the crucial encore segment of this tour. Notably, too, a lot of the “Look Now” numbers featured something they determinedly didn’t on record: guitar solos. Costello went on record, including in an interview he did with Variety, declaring that the guitar wasn’t a particularly important instrument for this album… but perhaps the latent guitar god in him did protest too much, since he was happy to take out the Telecaster or Gretsch to add some free-jazz or blues soloing to spots that otherwise belonged to Nieve’s elegant piano.
The one song that’s been completely rearranged from the old days, not just for the presence of background vocals but melodically as well, is “Tears Before Bedtime,” which Costello completely reimagined for last year’s “Imperial Bedroom” tour to finally make the slowed down music as sinewy and sinister as the lyrics. This live remake far outstripped the original recording. On the other hand, he was fine with keeping more or less intact the burbling synths from “Green Shirt,” even if they aren’t much of a piece with what he’s up to now. Somewhere in the middle, on the reinterpretation scale, was a surprising encore version of “Girls Talk” — kinda-sorta different in the band’s part of things, but really different because, for the first time, it includes, you know, actual girls talking. The presence of Kuroi and Lee as a sort of constant female Greek chorus in these old and new songs finally kind of puts Costello’s feminist money where his mouth is.
One of the joys of seeing back-to-back Costello shows is not just in the differences in the set list from night to night but changes in the interpolations that show up in the staples of the show — like a bit of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Insensatez” in “Clubland,” a trace of “Mr. Big Stuff” in “Everyday I Write the Book,” an audience sing-along of the other Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” in “Tears Before Bedtime,” a medley of Jimi Hendrix, Judy Garland and Sondheim embedded in “Alison,” or an odd coda of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” at the end of “Girls Talk.” At the Wiltern, two of these interpolations turned out to be full-length: a faithfully bluesy cover of Otis Rush’s “It Takes Time” tagged onto “Unwanted Number,” and then, a rarity, in the final encore, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” giving way to a solo voice-and-electric guitar cover of Los Lobos’ “A Matter of Time.” Although it’s not stated in the lyrics, the Lobos song is about family members coming from south of the U.S. border with the hope of reuniting in the States; sans commentary, Costello’s cover of the tune was clearly his political statement for the night. On a less topical note, he dove into the Bacharach/Hal David songbook for a rare rendition of the Gene Pitney hit “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa,” pretty much the cruelest ballad ever written.
Costello’s Wiltern show followed on the heels of a more calamitous show in Anaheim, where sound and guitar problems derailed much of the proceedings and even had him and the band leaving the stage for some time early in the set. Once upon a time, this would have been the occasion for rage, as anyone local old enough to have at least heard the legend of his short-show-ending tantrum at the Santa Monica Civic in ’78 would know. At the House of Blues (a piece of “clubland” which, at its new location, weirdly boasts a higher capacity than the Wiltern Theatre), Costello reacted with good humor and some surprising, acoustic guitar-led standouts, like an R&B-hootenanny take on “Motel Matches” — and he played for 2 hours and 40 there, snafus and all. At the end, he cheerfully announced, “We hope you saw a show that you will never see again!” The next night, up in L.A., he happily recounted the mishaps: “Was anybody there last night? Just about everything that could break broke, except my heart.”
But Costello’s heart is stout enough for marathons. And unlike, say, a three-hour Springsteen show, which is designed to build to such a familiar and sweaty climax that everyone wants to cry “uncle,” a Costello show leaves ‘em wanting more, even at almost three hours, with the hope of one more surprise gem from pop music’s greatest modern songwriting catalog, or one more upraised index finger. As the example of what a rock ‘n’ roll showman should be, he’s still this century’s model.