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Renaissance man Elvis Costello shows his country roots

Orpheum Theatre, Boston, April 20, 2010

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Elvis Costello remains a true music renaissance man. He's been a chameleon over more than three decades since he first started as one of the leading progenitors of New Wave with his debut, "My Aim Is True." Costello has tried on a lot of different hats since then, even classical, and his latest effort - going back to his country roots - was absolutely top notch.

Costello released the country disc "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane" last year. It's not the first time he went country. He did that back in 1981 with "Almost Blue," a so-so received album of country covers, but his second effort was a lot better.

Don't worry about Costello being able to pull it off live because he did so with great ease in a lively, energetic, top-notch performance. Decked out in a suit, tie, hat and black horn-rimmed glasses (some things never change), Costello remained a captivating performer after all these years. He certainly never rested on his laurels throughout the 110-minute show. No need to either because his current musical interest worked just fine.

Costello mixed it up between songs from "Secret..." to covers, including a very strong The Race Is On and Friend of the Devil to a less strong, but still good take on Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down from "Almost Blue."

He also dipped into his lengthy catalogue with such gems as Alison, What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding and (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes. But these weren't the familiar versions of yesteryear. No way. Costello changed it up a lot, tending to slow the songs down a good amount with far sparer instrumentation. Yet, he made them familiar, not doing a Dylan with his chestnuts where they were rendered unrecognizable.

Three songs must not have been familiar to pretty much anyone there - because they were just recorded and remain unreleased. That would include Slow Drag With Josephine and the traditional country Color of the Moon.

Costello's nasally voice has not changed a lick during his tenure. It's still got a lot of grit , energy and emotion, and it served him well.

So did his great backing band. Costello went to the A list of Nashville's finest for putting his band together. That would include just about the number one Dobro player in the world, Jerry Douglas; acoustic guitarist/back-up singer Jim Lauderdale, mandolinist Mike Compton, upright bassist Dennis Crouch, fiddler Stuart Duncan and accordionist Jeff Taylor. Costello gave each adequate time on stage to show their musical mettle, and all were more than up to the task. Duncan and Douglas were particular standouts, while Lauderdale's voice complemented Costello very well. For sure, the band was feeling its way with Costello since surprisingly this was their first of eight shows together. It certainly did not feel or sound like it was their first gig.

Costello may have a lot of musical interests, but there was no doubt that this guy knows a thing or two about country.