For devoted, longtime fans of Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Wednesday night’s show at Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre was a rollicking good time. The “Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers Tour” focuses on his 1982 album with the Attractions from which it takes its name. It’s a 15-song, critically acclaimed record big on production, but shy on familiar hits.
The concept may have made the show a bit of a hard sell judging by a sparser-than-usual crowd on the lawn – which probably made for a comfortable show for those able to stretch out and watch as Costello and his longtime band plus two key backup singers bopped through one upbeat arrangement after the next.
Casual fans that stayed away because of the promise of a rather obscure set list then they missed a fine show, but one with only a handful of well-known songs.
The band did play 12 of “Imperial Bedroom’s” 15 songs, but the early swathe of “The Loved Ones” and “…And In Every Home” through “Shabby Doll” made for a lively introduction to the record. In a black suit and bright red hat that matched Steve Nieve’s piano, Costello winkingly joked about considering “Waiting for the End of the World” or “Brilliant Mistake” for the set list, but opted instead for “Accidents Will Happen.”
Costello’s reggae and ska influences emerged on “Human Hands” and “Watching the Detectives,” which brought the crowd to its feet 10 songs into the set as old movie posters with titles like “Teenage Doll” and “Black Eyed Blonde” flashed on the screen behind them.
The ever-changing images riffed on original album art designer Barney Bubbles’ cover painting (itself a play on Picasso) and incorporated vintage illustrations and worn paperback book covers, winking at the theme of romantic misery.
The arrangements – with honking horn and synth sounds that are now technologically easy to pull off, but weren’t in the early ’80s – also benefited from the addition of backup singers Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee. The soulful singers not only brought to life the bigger arrangements and vocal harmonies, they added personality to the stage with simple, synchronized choreography.
During the first encore, the pair circled a single microphone with Costello for a gospel-tinged, vocal and guitar version of “Alison.” They then provided similar support on the title track to the upcoming musical “A Face in the Crowd,” as the veteran artist sang lead and played piano.
Costello’s stories were almost as entertaining as his songs. He recalled recording “Imperial Bedroom” with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, Alice Cooper and Duran Duran in neighboring studios. In introducing “Almost Blue,” he said, “I’m going to sing it for a girl who might be singing it right now in New York.” His jazz pianist wife Diana Krall, who covers the song, was playing the Beacon Theater in New York City Wednesday night.
This portion of the show explored Costello’s stylistic forays as Nieve wowed with busy, classical piano runs. Opening act Imelda May returned for a duet of “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” (a Sam & Dave cover from his 1980 album, “Get Happy”). Hailing from Dublin, May and her seven-piece band kicked the night off earlier with a strong opening set that hit on jazz torch songs and rockabilly, and one rocker co-written with Nashville musician Patrick Davis, whose parents were in the crowd.
The six-song second encore was capped with three familiar hits – which the crowd waited patiently for. He wrapped up the evening with “Everyday I Write the Book,” “Pump It Up” (the only true call back to his punk rock new wave roots) and “What’s So Funny (About Peace Love and Understanding)” – a song that sadly never seems to lose its relevance.