TVD Live: Elvis Costello & the Imposters at DAR Constitution Hall, 11/4

PHOTO: JAMES O’MARA | Normally super-prolific, Elvis Costello went five years between new albums recently, going so far as to tour an old album, Imperial Bedroom last year rather than release a new set of songs.

But a memoir, a health scare, and that tour with the Imposters reminded Costello how much he liked performing with the snap of Pete Thomas’ drums, the baroque inventiveness of keyboardist Steve Nieve, and the bounce of Davey Faragher. Last month, he released the new Look Now, his first album with the Imposters in 10 years, and was kicking off his tour to support the album last weekend, with his third stop at the staid DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC Sunday.

The Imposters are pretty much the Attractions with a switch in bassists from Bruce Thomas to Faragher, so there was a great opportunity to play the snarling tracks of his early years along with the quieter, generally more pop approach of his new work.

He pointed to each Imposter as the bracing opening song featured each of them in turn—drums to bass to organ on “This Year’s Girl,” a song that felt utterly contemporary, in part because it’s been the theme song to this season’s The Deuce on HBO (which coincidentally was having its finale that night).

Looking sharp in black suit, tie and shirt and brandishing his electric guitar, the four were accompanied by the background singers from the last tour, Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, who were left to mostly go-go dance in knee-high boots to the oldest songs since they largely featured no background parts.

It’s a tour titled “Look Now and Then,” so after a blast of three old favorites, concluding with “Clubland,” he moved to the new album’s title song, which recalled the smooth pop melodicism of his Burt Bacharach collaboration in part because it was co-written by Bacharach (author of the brief intro of “The Look of Love” that preceded “Photographs Can Lie” he also co-wrote).

Strings and rich production back a number of these songs on the record, which might indicate that the hard charging Imposters wouldn’t the best outfit to bring them out live. Still, Nieve’s deft touch, and his access to all manner of synthesizers, pianos and organs, brought a lot of the pop feel to the fore among the rockers. That meant no one theme night but a balance between rock and pop that has kept Costello such a vital figure in music for so long.

Another Bacharach collaboration, “He’s Given Me Things,” was a torchy song from the position of a man left by a lover. One aspect of the new material is that the songs are written from different perspectives, such as the one he co-wrote with Carole King, “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter.”

One affecting ballad in the encores that was worthy of the Bacharach collaboration was one he wrote without him, “Stripping Paper,” which he described as his first song about home decorating, but was instead a clever way to recall a relationship’s tatters as reflected in its wallpaper use.

Amid the ornate pop were some straight ahead rockers, from the urgent “Under Lime” to the ringing 60s’ style “Unwanted Number” (which he originally wrote for the 1996 movie Grace of My Heart where, incidentally “God Give me Strength” also premiered). The new “Suspect My Tears” is a solid R&B number someone could make into a hit. They also fit nicely near things like the ringing “High Fidelity” and the bona fide hit “Everyday I Write the Book,” with which he closed the main set.

He sang most of the new album, but in a generous, 27-song show he was able to repeatedly bring back many of his choice nuggets, from the R&B of “Temptation,” to the solid “Brilliant Mistake,” and an especially affecting, gospel-tinged “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” that seemed particularly potent sung a couple of blocks from the White House.

Strangely there were few comments about the political climate—fewer than he made at Wolf Trap last year, at least. And no admonishments to vote. Whatever banter there was tended to be more along the lines of, “We were in Atlantic City last night, so it was a highway to Hell from A.C. to D.C.”

But maybe it was something about the quaint patriotic setting that led him to start the final encore at the piano with a couple of songs from his unproduced musical A Face in the Crowd, based on the 1957 movie. They fit pretty well with the more rocking Momofuku song “American Gangster Time,” though by then the tone was almost too cynical for the traces of hope still found in “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”; enough maybe to still send us out to the polls.

“Where are the strong? And who are the trusted? And where is the harmony?” indeed.

SETLIST
This Year’s Girl
Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?
Clubland
Don’t Look Now
Burnt Sugar is So Bitter
Green Shirt
Photographs Can Lie
Temptation
Brilliant Mistake
Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?
Under Lime
Watching the Detectives
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
He’s Given Me Things
Unwanted Number
High Fidelity
Alison
Everyday I Write the Book

Stripping Paper
Suspect My Tears
(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
Mr. & Mrs. Hush
Pump It Up

A Face in the Crowd
Blood & Hot Sauce
American Gangster Time
(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

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