Elvis Costello & The Imposters shared four decades of music at Michigan Theater

. November 25, 2019.
Elvis Costello with vocalist Briana Lee. Photo credit: Lori Stratton.

Elvis Costello unearthed a treasure trove of favorites and rarities during his buoyant Nov. 20 show at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. 

The iconic multi-genre British singer-songwriter performed a vibrant two-hour set of gems from his sonic vault of 30-plus albums before nearly 1,700 fans. It was his first local appearance in more than three years.

Wednesday’s Tree Town show served as one of the remaining stops with The Imposters on his 24-date “Just Trust” fall U.S. tour, which runs through Nov. 26 in Milwaukee.

Along with original Imposters Steve Nieve (keys) and Pete Thomas (drums), Davey Faragher (bass, vocals) and vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, Costello launched his 23-song set with “Strict Time,” a classic from his 1981 “Trust” album.

Dressed mostly in black with a bright red fedora, gold-striped tie and dark sunglasses, Costello epitomized more than 40 years of new wave cool against a backdrop composed of three large separate screens displaying “Look Now”-inspired artwork and bright green lights.

“It’s good to be back here in Ann Arbor. We didn’t always used to play palaces like this,” said Costello about performing at the historic Michigan Theater in support of his latest “Look Now” album. 

“We did when Steve, Pete and I first started out 40-odd years ago, and believe me, a couple of them were very awful. It was him and him and me and another bloke you used to know. We traveled all around England, and we thought we were really living and hitting the high life, and we came and went to the United States for the first time and found ourselves in the unimaginable luxury of the Howard Johnson.”

Clubland to Watching the Detectives

Lodging banter aside, Costello unlocked several timeless gems, including “Clubland,” “Green Shirt,” “Accidents Will Happen,” “New Lace Sleeves” and “Why Can’t a Man Stand Alone?” Those tracks alone took the crowd through a 15-year creative journey in Costello’s catalog.

Costello also shared new two keepsakes, “Unwanted Number” and “Suspect My Tears,” from “Look Now,” his 2018 release on Concord Records and his first new album with The Imposters in more than a decade.

During “Unwanted Number,” colorful eyes displayed on the three screens behind Costello while the phrases, “Need You,” “Desire You” and “Want You,” flashed throughout the performance. Nieve and Thomas engaged in a beautiful keyboard and drum duet as Faragher added funky bass and Costello included an extensive bluesy guitar solo.

For “Watching the Detectives,” red and green spotlights revealed Costello while a dark purple light cloaked the band. The crowd eagerly stood for Costello’s early reggae-inspired track as noir detective and spy movie posters for “Pickup on South Street,” “Born to Kill” and other films flew across the screens.

A Face in the Crowd to Look Now

Costello also introduced two songs from “A Face in the Crowd,” his work-in-progress musical-theater update of the Budd Schulberg screenplay about a corrupt populist politician that became famous in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film version. Costello moved to the piano with Kuroi and Lee to sing the title track and “Blood & Hot Sauce.”

“Here’s a song off of a musical show, which is going to be coming your way very soon. It could very well play in this theater, and we hope you come and see it,” Costello said. “It’s about a no-good double-talkin’, womanizin’, pill-poppin’, hard-drinkin’, bullshitin’, lyin’, cheatin’, swearin’, connivin’, double-crossin’, no-good human.”

More than halfway through his set, Costello performed “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter,” an emotional early ‘60s-inspired piano track co-written with Carole King, from “Look Now.” “We decided to write a song together sometime in the last century, and we came up with a story. It’s about a woman trying put her life back together after her fella fled with their life savings,” he said.

High Fidelity to Peace, Love and Understanding

After “Burnt Sugar,” Costello returned to a string of sparkling fan favorites, ranging from “High Fidelity” to “Radio Radio” to “Alison” to “Everyday I Write the Book,” which featured cascading blue, purple and pink lights alongside old-time photos of lovers past and readers devouring novels. Costello also extended “Book” to introduce and sing the praises of The Imposters as well as Kuroi and Lee.

Costello closed out his spirited show with the dancy “Pump It Up” and the hopeful Nick Lowe cover, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” In a sense, both tracks served as the unofficial encore to a memorable night for Costello, The Imposters and Ann Arborites. 

“I do want to thank you very much for bringing us out here,” Costello said. In return, Ann Arborites thanked Costello opening up his extensive and eclectic catalog of sonic treasures.

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