By David Menconi
CARY -- Elvis Costello seemingly has next to nothing in common with Bruce Springsteen. And yet New Jersey's favorite son is exactly who Costello's Sunday night performance at Koka Booth Amphitheatre brought to mind.
Admittedly, Springsteen fronts a bombastic bar band that plays arenas while Costello's latest incarnation is country stringband leader playing in bucolic outdoor settings -- but bear with me here. Costello's show was almost Springsteen-ian in its sheer length, a marathon that lasted almost two-and-a-half hours. Among the many between-song anecdotes Costello related was one in which his father featured prominently (giving the cryptic piece of advice, "Never look up to a note, always look down at it."). And the 30-song show was a wonder of multi-genre crossbreeding, in which Costello rendered a half-century of popular music as a seamless whole.
Costello is touring these days with the Sugarcanes, a killer six-piece ensemble featuring some of Nashville's best players, most notably dobroist Jerry Douglas and Statesville native Jim Lauderdale on backup vocals and guitar. Despite the collection of world-class chops onstage, the players indulged in virtually no instrumental showboating and kept everything in service to the songs. Costello was in quite fine voice, and these players were good enough to create arrangements that actually sort of implied the sounds of horns and keyboards.
Despite Sunday night's heat, Costello came onstage in a dark suit jacket he did not remove (although he did take off his hat after a few songs). He and the band entered with no fanfare and began with a rather cheeky first selection, "Mystery Train" by Costello's namesake Elvis Presley.
That was one of a half-dozen covers, along with most of the new album "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane" (Hear Music) -- which debuted on the Billboard album chart at No. 13 this week, Costello's highest placement in 30 years. The show also had a handful of songs from 1986's "King of America," Costello's other major foray into American roots music, very skillfully rendered.
Really, though, the most fun interludes were the covers and Costello's own oldies, which had a name-that-tune aspect. "Blame It on Cain," "Everyday I Write the Book" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" were originally recorded in vastly different electric-rock-band versions. Yet they worked beautifully in an acoustic format, transposing to country stringband tunes so well you'd have sworn they were written that way. "Everyday I Write the Book" was particularly effective, a piece of bouncy pure pop slowed to a mournful dirge that made the melancholia of the lyrics a lot more evident.
Some of the covers were obvious enough, given the show's country leanings, including Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" (featuring Lauderdale's best and most prominent vocal of the night) and George Jones' "The Race Is On." But the masterstroke was the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," in a cool percussive arrangement that barreled along like a steam train.
Predictably, perhaps, Costello saved a couple of his signatures for the extended encore, "Allison" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Of course, they were both fantastic, especially "Allison" -- a song Costello made feel as if it still means something to him even after more than three decades.
It was a beautiful thing.
(For more, check the accompanying photo gallery.)