TVD Live: Elvis Costello and Imelda May at Wolf Trap, 6/22

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | At a time when heritage artists have been distinguishing their tours with reverent presentations of their classic albums, playing them in strict order, one side and then the other, Elvis Costello has found a more flexible vehicle in a tour to celebrate his 1982 Imperial Bedroom.

A landmark album in his rich period of complex pop, it’s provided him with a playground, not only to revisit most (but not all) of its songs, but to veer off into other parts of his career. That means some of the early hits with the Attractions that are staples of his live shows, but also a couple of intriguing but as yet not recorded songs he wrote for a musical version of “A Face in the Crowd.”

Still, that means his generous show with the Imposters at Wolf Trap Thursday skipped pretty much everything from his last 17 or so studio albums, dating back to 1986. Costello, 62, already played the tour in the market back in November, but had some new tricks up his sleeve for the outdoor venue whose ambience on a hot summer night he likened to “the tropical bird house at Regent’s Park.”

Preparing a DC setlist, he said, “every song sounded like it was some bad satiric revue.” He toyed with playing “Waiting for the End of the World,” for example, or “Brilliant Mistake.” He ended up marking the political moment with “Accidents Will Happen.”

Reshuffling the old work allowed him to present “Watching the Detectives” in near darkness, followed by what could have been the same couple a few years later in “A Long Honeymoon” and third song that may have shown the same twosome in a more rare positive place, with “Indoor Fireworks,” which sounded great when he began it accompanying only himself on guitar, but took a shaky country turn when the band kicked in.

Costello changed the approach on several songs, hanging back on the lyrics in “Accidents Will Happen,” slowing down “Tears Before Bedtime” and adding the chorus of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to the very similar sounding “…And In Every Home.” With opening act Imelda May joining him in the first encore finale of “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” they started it as a throbbing, bluesier version before kicking it up to the faster pace he used recording it.

With original drummer Pete Thomas beating out a frantic beat behind him, his other longtime sideman Steve Nieve was splendid on his intricate piano and keyboard work. And while most of the show employed a big sound, some of the best moments were he and Nieve on dramatic things like the enduring “Shot with his Own Gun.” It was a rare enough occasion that he was singing “Boy with a Problem” alongside Nieve that he required a sheet of the lyrics, which were largely written by Chris Difford of Squeeze.

The spare approach also worked on the enduring “Almost Blue,” or when he stood with guitar and backup singers Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee for the inevitable “Alison.” The two animated singers were under the direction of bassist Davey Faragher, who kept up the intricate parts originated by Bruce Thomas even as he altered many songs to allow for the sweetened vocal backups.

With brash, colorful paintings that alternated between revised variations of Costello’s iconic album covers in the style of Barney Bubbles’ original “Imperial Bedroom” art and pulp novels, Costello wore an array of hats—red for the main set, then blue in the first encore, and a lavender in the second. It was a long show—with 28 songs in all, topped by the enduring benediction he made his own, “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

May’s own opening set won the crowd over, with the soulful Irish singer backed by a solid band, using gospel and rock with a sassy Chrissie Hynde-like presentation and a short black skirt that she joked gave front rows got a whole different kind of VIP show.

IMELDA MAY

ELVIS COSTELLO SETLIST
The Loved Ones
…And in Every Home / Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Accidents Will Happen
You’ll Never Be a Man
Tears Before Bedtime
Moods for Moderns
Shabby Doll
Human Hands
Green Shirt
Go Tell (Your Quiet Sister)
Watching the Detectives
The Long Honeymoon
Indoor Fireworks
Kid About It
King Horse
You Little Fool
Pidgin English

Alison
A Face in the Crowd
Shot with His Own Gun
Boy With a Problem
Almost Blue
I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down

Beyond Belief
Man Out of Time
Everyday I Write the Book
Pump It Up
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

IMELDA MAY SETLIST
When It’s My Time
Human
Sixth Sense
Black Tears
Leave Me Lonely
Should’ve Been You
Mayhem
The Girl I Used to Be

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