ALBANY – “The band sounds wound up and off-hand at the same time,” wrote Elvis Costello in album notes for “Girls Girls Girls” (1976-86 compilation).
So it was at the Palace on Wednesday when he launched with “The Town Where Time Stood Still” but mostly stretched time, to 1982, to “Imperial Bedroom,” a masterpiece album of politics, sexual and otherwise. He played 13 of its 15 songs and a dozen mostly older tunes: some brutally terse, bold blurs of feeling; others, luxuriant band blasts.
In trademark (red) lid, (wide) lenses, sharp shoes and suit jacket, he looked years younger than keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, bandmates since his punk-time Attractions. Bassist Davey Faragher and singers Kitten Kuroi and YahZarah in turn looked years younger than Elvis, whose good mood only revved up as the 2/3-full mostly boomers crowd warmed slowly to dance time in pumped up encores.
Costello happily celebrated bristling bon mots, merry/melancholy melodies and genial swagger, a perfectionist craftsman amid rough-and-ready punk; a pure popster raised by a big-band trumpeter in the echo of Johnny Rotten.
Costello played (mostly) electric or acoustic guitar, chopping chords restlessly against his band’s confident muscular riffing. With nowhere to hide (no other guitarist), Costello had to carry the weight, and did. Singers Kuroi and YahZarah were terrific, singing on the money and animating the songs with their moves.
Most melodies moved at medium tempos, framing words Costello occasionally explained. “Romantic misery” prompted “You Little Fool,” he said, but another note from “Girls Girls Girls” better highlights their off-hand, heads-up grace: “Words seemed to fly straight through the moving window and come out of my mouth or my pen.”
On Wednesday, they flew out of his cracked, quavering croon and the punch of his band.
“Lipstick Vogue” hit an early taut peak, echoed after the rueful “…And in Every Home” by the flip fatalism of “Accidents Will Happen;” the aching, limping waltz “You Little Fool” by punk strut “Moods for Moderns.” He kept things moving, kaleidoscopic, with only “Watching the Detectives” reflecting his love of reggae. But many songs, masterpieces of compression, offered bold internal contrasts: “Shabby Doll” started quietly then burst into vast guitar noise. The set-closing “Man Out of Time” (which Costello proudly is) grew from the stretched coda of the fan-requested “Beyond Belief” into a majestic Nieve piano exploration somewhere between Chopin and Monk.
A bit past an hour into his two-hour show, Costello sent the band off to sing “Alison” with just Kuroi and YahZarah and followed with sad piano-bar nightmares “Shot With His Own Gun” and “Almost Blue” accompanied only by Nieve’s Steinway. The sometimes talky crowd sat in awed silence.
After a few more fast-slow pairs, Costello stepped on the gas with generous encores of “Everyday I Write the Book,” the torchy “Town Cryer,” then the everybody-up exuberance of “Clubland,” “Pump It Up” and a revved “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” — a knockout finish.
Reach Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]