Elvis Costello & The Imposters: The Boy Named If & Other Favorites Tour 2022 [Concert Review]

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Elvis Costello & The Imposters w/ Nicole Atkins; The Boy Named If & Other Favorites TourRose Music Center; Dayton, OH; Saturday, August 6, 2022

Elvis Costello has been a singer and songwriter of note for going on 45 years, but as we were reminded at his concert on Saturday night at the Rose Music Center, he is first and foremost a storyteller. Rarely do you hear artists play music they’ve recorded through the P.A. as part of the playlist before they hit the stage, but I heard Costello’s distinctive singing voice on several alt-country sounding songs that played before he took the stage with his fine band of backing musicians, and for the several verses that played loudly through the system after the lights went down before they walked out to greet the crowd.

But shortly after the band opened the show with two songs from the 1979 release, Armed Forces – “Accidents Will Happen” and “Green Shirt,” two that he’s played consistently at live shows for some years, Costello thanked the crowd for the warm response to “Surrender to the Rhythm,” the recorded song playing as they entered, telling the story of that album’s creation, although to be honest, that applause when the lights went down had a lot more to do with getting the show started.

The concert had barely begun, but Costello was in story telling mode; he recounted a phone call from his old friend Allan Mayes, recalling how Elvis had joined his band Rusty 50 years earlier, suggesting that they should get together and “record a cassette.” Costello recalled their early days, playing anywhere folk would let them, and some places where they wouldn’t, like a Catholic girl’s school. So, Costello one upped his first bandmate and partner, saying they should record the album they would have made when they were 18, if someone had let them. In honor of the release of The Resurrection of Rust, Costello dedicated the next song to his old pal Allan, who he suggested was no doubt out playing some venue in his hometown of Austin. Then, Costello led the band into “Either Side of the Same Town,” a country ballad leaning number from one of their great, but underrated releases, ‘04’s The Delivery Man, with bass player Davey Faragher, who’s addition to the band brought the change of the name from The Attractions to the Imposters. He sang harmony vocals on the choruses, while Elvis’ vocal delivery found him screaming and howling as he killed on those high notes. The guy still has some amazing pipes.

Costello introduced “Hetty O’Hara Confidential,” about an old school gossip columnist from an era when “sin and shame were for sale,” who loses her platform in the age of social media, because “now everyone has a megaphone.” And fitting his vocal delivery, once Charlie Sexton had played a guitar solo, and Steve Nieve took one on organ, Costello played a jazz guitar solo as well, then pulled out a megaphone to deliver the final “Who’s got the dope/who’s got the potential?”

That one came from Hey Clockface, the 2020 release from solo recordings made in Helsinki with Costello playing all the instruments. Then, he added a new song to the setlist of the first time on this tour, from the very same album, the loud, angry rant of “No Flag,” which is the closest thing to Costello’s early punk influenced music recorded in many years. Given that this song was recorded completely solo, Costello playing all the instruments, it was an excellent moment to take notice of his incredible live band, now called The Imposters. The song is framed around one of those great rock guitar riffs played by Costello, framed by the pounding rhythm of Pete Thomas, who along with Steve Nieve on keyboards joined The Attractions in late 1977. Of course, Nieve had first recorded with Costello on “Watching the Detectives,” a song from Elvis’ debut album, My Aim Is True, which was next on Costello’s setlist.

On this beloved 45-year-old track, the storyteller in Costello has tended to take hold, as he tells of watching late night TV crime dramas as a child, like “The Invisible Lady,” on a black and white screen for inspiration, telling the tale while his band sizzles behind him with a rockin’ reggae beat, only to slide easily back into the song’s final verse. But staying with that early ’77 debut, the band dived immediately into “Mystery Dance,” which gave guest guitarist Sexton a chance to play out over the rockin’ rhythm, before Elvis said “go Steve go,” and Nieve pounded out those fast high-end chords of old school rock & roll piano.

After that loud jam, Costello introduced his opening act, singer Nicole Atkins back to the stage to join him on four songs. Costello put on an acoustic guitar, and they opened on a tender, light country rendering or “I’ll Wear It Proudly,” from another one of Costello’s most underrated albums, but a personal favorite, King of America, from 1986. Then, finally turning to a song from his newest release, The Boy Named If, Costello and Atkins trading verses, but really playing up the old schoolgirl group vocal sound when they get to the line about “The Marvelettes.” Then in another flash from the past, Costello led Atkins and the band through two from his 1994 album, Brutal Youth, the quieter “Still Too Soon to Know,” and the rock & roll pop chorus of “Just About Glad,” after which he sent Atkins off stage with applause from the crowd.

At this point, you could feel the energy go up a notch as Costello led his Imposters into two more from the new album, even as he told another story about the confession prior to his first communion, where he admitted to the sin of adultery, something he had no knowledge of until he encountered a new girl at school and felt something he’d never felt before. He said, “I wrote this song about her, it’s called ‘Penelope Halfpenny,” but of course it’s really about me, they’re all about me.” It was a bit of a scorcher, and Costello took a torrid, slamming solo on his Telecaster. The from the same album, one with a pop-driven melody, “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?” The song heated up during the lengthy jam, with Costello turning toward Sexton as the two guitarists played off of each other, passing musical phrases back and forth.

This was followed by “Newspaper Pane,” which started out as a slow creeper, Costello talking through the song’s vivid, poetic storyline of a woman trapped in her grief, newspapers over the windows to keep out the light. The original was on Hey Clockface but was recorded in New York City with jazz producer and arranger Michael Leonhart, with contributions on guitar from Bill Frisell. In the hands of the Imposters, the tensions in the song grew more intense with each verse, Costello speaking the narrative poetry through another of his effected microphones, the piece grew to a full-on rocker on the wings of Nieve’s organ parts and guitar solo from Elvis.

But before the overdriven guitar sounds entirely faded, Costello had nodded to his drummer of 45 years Pete Thomas, while quickly changing back to a Fender Jaguar guitar, and the two were half a verse into “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” again from his sophomore release, This Year’s Model, before the rest of the band caught up. Anyone who’s seen Costello & Co. live in recent years could no doubt feel that sudden shift to a higher gear of urgency as the band picked up momentum as they begin to build toward the concert’s climax. Costello played a screamer of a guitar solo and then while the band continued playing “Chelsea,” Elvis introduced his band, starting with bassist Farragher, who took a bass solo. Next up, “from Paris, France, the Professor Steve Nieve on organ, piano, and various and sundry keyboards,” announced Elvis in his best MC, the entertainer voice.

Then honoring the presence of the band’s special guest, Charlie Sexton, who’s produced records for the likes of Lucinda Williams, but is like best known as Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist for many years. He came on board with Elvis and the Imposters late in 2021 and will play through the summer tour. After Sexton took a couple turns around the melody on solo, Costello instructed the crowd to “stand up for the drummer,” repeatedly, but Thomas who played powerfully throughout the band’s 105 minute set, thrashed his kit briefly for emphasis, and very quickly cued Costello to play the opening killer guitar riff of their latest single, “Magnificent Hurt,” the fourth and final track of the evening from A Boy Called If, with Costello emphasizing the “hurt” each time it came around with a screaming guitar lick.

The song ended, but the music never stopped. Thomas counted out the fast four and the band launched into a crowd favorite, “Pump It Up,” always a showstopper. But again, with the crowd chanting along to “pump it up,” Elvis finished the song and Thomas counted out the beat for their set-closing number, the Nick Lowe written early hit of Costello, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” which again became an audience sing-along.

Costello motioned for his bandmates to come out front, side by side, and then quieting the applause, he told another story about the band’s early days, explaining that when they first played America, they only had about 35 minutes of music, and “on a good night we could get it down to 22.” He went on to explain that they did know a ballad, but they never played it because he wasn’t able to play the gentle opening licks, but since they had Charlie Sexton here tonight, did the crowd want to hear on more? Then, of course, they served up a campfire sing along version of Costello’s classic from his debut, “Alison,” which included the lyric which gave the album its title: My Aim Is True. Costello added a verse at the end, singing in his high falsetto, “I’m gonna make you love me.” He gathered up the boys in the band one more time, put on the red hat that he’d tossed aside before the band’s first song, and off they went into the night.

Nicole Atkins, a long-time indie pop and rock artist, opened the show with her band, playing 10 of her own tracks in a crisp, warm 45-minute set as the sun was beginning to set. She has a strong, powerful voice, and she started out on acoustic guitar which together with her lead guitarist’s twangy Telecaster gave her a country/Americana sound. After three songs she switched to an electric Jaguar, taking full advantage of the whammy bar. Introducing a slow number and inviting the crowd members to enter the “Ted Danson Slow Dancing Contest,” suggesting that the song went out to her high school sweetheart, Chris Isaak, who she confessed didn’t know they were dating, but she nailed that twangy warbling “Wicked Ways” sound. She closed out the set with a handful of rockier pop songs, and ended the night with a ballad, singing “You’re the One,” winning over a fair number of fans in the crowd.

Brian Q. Newcomb

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