It seems slightly ridiculous now, but Elvis Costello’s 1981 Almost Blue came with a sticker warning: “This album contains country & Western music & may produce radical reaction in narrow minded people.” An alt-country movement, Americana format, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack later, the most radical reaction Costello’s epic country-punk jamboree with Emmylou Harris and the Imposters induced was a certain amount of awe at the ass-kicking audacity of a 50-year-old rock star performing 33 songs over two and a half breakless hours—particularly in last week’s fetid summer stew, and while sporting a finely tailored dark two-piece suit.
A handful of tunes in, Costello introduced former and longtime Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, who joined the blazing Imposters for “Waiting for the End of the World” (a young-Elvis nod to Bob) and then stuck around for the rest of the show on mandolin, fiddle, and pedal steel guitar. Emmylou Harris’s arrival, however, sparked a quantum leap in historical resonance. Both Costello’s and Harris’s voices are massive vibrato generators fueled by deep emotional reservoirs. The pair played out a vast domestic encyclopedia of hookups, put-downs, breakups, and mornings-after, originally written in tears by Johnny Cash (“I Still Miss Someone”), Harris’s first duet partner Gram Parsons (“Sleepless Nights”), and George Jones (“One of These Days”); eventually, they landed on Costello’s metaphorically baroque “Indoor Fireworks.” Harris sang “Red Dirt Girl” and joined Costello in a bunch of Parsons tunes, and the hits just kept on coming.
Costello’s reputation often seems suspended between his curatorial smarts and his stylistically promiscuous sentimental journeymanship; the added value nips disposability in the bud from either angle. He sprinkled most of the tracks from his recent album The Delivery Man into the set list, where they outperformed their recorded versions, especially “Heart Shaped Bruise” and spooky “Nothing Clings Like Ivy” (“She said, ‘You know how young girls are/From my contempt for you’ “). And they couldn’t have squatted more comfortably than in the raw emotional brush first cleared by Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, the Stanley Brothers, and everyone else Costello crammed into his own personal grand ole opry.