Costello's Imperial Honeymoon

The first time I saw Elvis Costello, he and the Attractions were touring behind “Imperial Bedroom,” a 1982 album considered such a great leap forward that Columbia’s ad campaign featured Barney Bubbles’ Picasso-derived cover with the word “Masterpiece?” beneath it. Costello was playing at Alpine Valley Music Theatre to a much larger audience than had been populating his prior theater and club dates. 

The show was a big deal to me too. I loved “Imperial Bedroom” and had grown rabid in my Costello fandom, and I hadn’t gone to many concerts in those pre-college days, certainly not ones for which I piled my friends into my parents’ Buick Century wagon and drove up to East Troy, Wis. Costello and band stormed through something like 35 songs, almost all great, and I felt thrilled by my proximity to such vitality.

There’s something magical about catching an artist on the rise as he creates music that later will be considered his classic period. “Imperial Bedroom” was Costello’s sixth album of new original material since 1977, and each one broadened his palette. “Imperial Bedroom” may have its fussy moments and lack the full-on punch of its predecessors, but its breadth of styles, soul-probing subjects, innovative arrangements and brilliant musicality indicated this was a guy experiencing breathtaking year-by-year growth.

So when Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers” tour was announced over the summer, I was excited. With his band the Imposters, which is the Attractions minus Bruce Thomas and plus Davey Faragher on bass, Costello would be revisiting this fertile period — one that did, in retrospect, turn out to be a peak.

The retrospect part is key now, of course. We no longer wonder which vistas will be revealed post “Imperial Bedroom.” We know what came next were the overt pop of “Punch the Clock” and its hit “Everyday I Write the Book” and the more blatant trend-chasing of the unfortunately synthesized “Goodbye Cruel World” — before he rebounded with the stripped-down, rootsy triumph of the T. Bone Burnett-produced “King of America” followed a mere seven months later by the blasting thrills of “Blood and Chocolate,” with 30 (!) more years of genre-hopping and solid craftsmanship to come.

I saw Costello more than 20 times between then and now. I tried to separate my appreciation for his music from my feelings about, say, his Israeli cultural boycott or his unprovoked tirade against my friend and my wife’s radio partner Lin Brehmer at a 2002 concert. I interviewed him a couple of times on the phone and chatted with him at a couple of Vanity Fair Oscar parties, where he was affable and thoughtful. 

I also got older, as did he, and my goosebumps moments while listening to recorded or live music became fewer and farther between.

So Saturday night’s Chicago Theatre concert was never going to recapture the vibes — for performer or listener — of concerts that he played 34 years ago. Here was a still-restless, forward-pushing artist in a position that’s as rare for him as it is common for his contemporaries: backwards-looking guy.

Mind you, I think “nostalgia” gets a bad rap in rock. Classical music is all about digging into old catalogs to discover new resonances. As Prince did, Costello has released more new music in more styles than most fans can keep track of, so if he wants to take a deep dive into “Imperial Bedroom” or “Get Happy!!” or any of his other indelible albums, that’s fine by me. He still wasn’t taking the greatest-hits approach of so many veteran acts. 

So why didn’t Saturday’s concert send me out with the kind of buzz that some previous shows did? 

For one, the sound was strangely terrible. When assessing a show’s artistic impact, the last thing I want to discuss is acoustics, but I had great seats, about 12 rows back toward the center, and I might as well have been sitting at the rear of the United Center.

It had no visceral impact. You couldn’t feel the drums’ thump; Pete Thomas sounded like he was whacking sheets of paper on a clothesline. Steve Nieve’s keyboards were buried in the mix. Costello’s guitar was buried in the mix. His voice often was buried in the mix. You could hear Faragher’s bass throughout — sometimes in a thumpy-thump “Seinfeld” sort of way — but what was turned up most, seemingly, was murk.

The sound seemed to get better as the concert progressed, perhaps because “Imperial Bedroom” is light on rockers, and the relatively quiet songs — including a slowed-down, soul-searing “Tears Before Bedtime”; a Nieve grand piano-accompanied “Shot with His Own Gun” and a solo (with background singers) “Alison” — sounded stellar. But when the band would crank it up — Thomas’ hurricane onslaught of “Lipstick Vogue,” the jazzy propulsion of “Shabby Doll,” the show closing “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” — the energy would dissipate somewhere between the stage and audience.

At times the players sounded sluggish anyway. “You’ll Never Be a Man” and “Hand in Hand,” in particular, lacked snap, and Costello, in fine voice with an occasional hint of rasp, often sang behind the beat, whether by choice or for some other reason. (A monitor, presumably displaying lyrics, was placed in front of his microphone.) These were the moments when the middle-aged fan takes in the older musicians on stage and thinks: Oh, man, everybody is getting old. 

Yet I’m really glad I experienced this concert, and not just because I’d made the tough call of seeing Costello over what turned out to be a dispiriting (for Cubs fans) Game 4 of the World Series. As is often the case, it all comes down to the power of the song.

Even with him playing 13 of the 15 “Imperial Bedroom” songs (for those keeping score, he skipped “Little Savage” and “Boy with a Problem”), there wasn’t a weak one in the bunch, and some of the biggest revelations were the so-called sleepers. For instance, he didn’t play “Human Hands” on that 1982 tour, and I don’t recall hearing him perform it any other time, yet amid his catalog’s many poisoned roses, this is one of his most open-hearted love songs, and it shone Saturday night.

So did “Pidgin English,” bolstered by the call-and-response with backup singers Kitten Kuroi and Yahzarah, and “The Long Honeymoon,” a broken-marriage bossa nova that Costello tied musically and thematically to the preceding “Watching the Detectives.”  

In some ways I can measure a concert’s success by how inclined I become to revisit the material; the inspiring ones send me back to listen to the originals anew. “Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers” did that, and I’m grateful.

Funnily enough, though, the concert hit an unexpected high point when, during the second encore, Costello moved to the grand piano to introduce three new, New Orleans-flavored songs that he’s written for an upcoming stage musical of Budd Schulberg’s “A Face in the Crowd,” previously a 1957 Elia Kazan movie starring Andy Griffith. All of a sudden, an informal, work-in-progress vibe had taken hold.

Will those songs earn the kind of decades-long affection that the “Imperial Bedroom” ones have? Probably not; it's tough to keep being indelible. But Costello was in his element, pushing forward again.

— Mark Caro