It’s a conundrum classic rockers have faced for decades: how to balance the desire to play the new stuff you’re excited about with the need to give your fans the hits. If you’re Elvis Costello, who played the Boch Center Wang Theatre with his longtime backing band the Imposters Saturday night, you come to the same solution the likes of Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen have hit upon — just play for so long that no one could possibly leave unsatisfied.
Of the 26 songs Costello played during the 2½-hour concert, 10 came from “Look Now,” his first album with the Imposters since 2008. At their best, songs like the snappy Carole King co-write “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” and the impassioned torch song “Suspect My Tears” combined the energy and hooks of his New Wave classics with the air of pre-rock sophistication he’s so deliberately cultivated in his later years. Costello would introduce these numbers with lengthy monologues, detailing in deliciously pulpy prose the sordid situations in which the showbiz types who populate the record found themselves.
Though Costello had canceled a show in Connecticut the night before because of a throat infection (a concerning development given his recent cancer scare), one wouldn’t have guessed that from his excellent vocal performance Saturday. He sometimes lagged behind on the older songs, but that felt less like Costello not being able to keep up and more like him trying to entertain himself while singing “Accidents Will Happen” for the umpteenth time. Occasionally, he would put down his guitar, take mic in hand, and go into crooner mode, even briefly sitting at the piano during a show-stopping “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror.”
Costello made the unusual choice to introduce the Imposters a mere three songs in, then again at the first set’s conclusion. Though he’s played with keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas since the late ’70s (with bassist Davey Faragher a relatively new addition), his enthusiasm for these musicians remains undiminished. Judging by their sharp playing — undeniably accomplished but never showy — this reflects good taste on Costello’s part. Also onstage were two backup singers who played their supporting roles with style before joining Costello up front for an intimate “Allison” and a version of “Everyday I Write the Book” infectious enough to bring the theater crowd to their feet.
Naturally, Costello saved the biggest kicks for the nine(!)-song encore. “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Pump It Up” were predictably dynamite, but it was the psychosexual drama of “I Want You” which truly astonished, Costello’s threats and pleas growing more unhinged as the Imposters trudged through the song’s blood-curdling chords. Too much the showman to leave on such a dire note, Costello instead closed with “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” its desperate hope for a kinder world tugging at the heartstrings with the poignancy of a secular hymn. More than an excellent concert, the night was heartening proof that Costello is alive, well, and still capable of bringing down the house.
ELVIS COSTELLO and th e IMPOSTERS
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, Saturday