CLEARWATER — There he stood, in buttoned suit, clunky specs, porkpie hat, still able to hold a tune like a young scruff mouthing off to the cops. He clawed his Telecaster with a grudge; he took the solemn conventions of a hallowed evening at Ruth Eckerd Hall and, well, set up the Hostage of Fortune go-go cage and the Spectacular Spinning Songbook.
Age typically withers the punk in all of us. That's the bargain, that's the deal. We betray authority, then we become it. But at 57 years old, Elvis Costello, unlike his aging rock Valhalla peers, has maintained a rare outcast charm, a functional disregard that still gives him that thrashing hipster cred, the richest smartaleck in rock.
At Ruth Eckerd Hall on Tuesday, in front of a sold-out, and altogether rowdy, crowd of 2,012, the Brit born Declan Patrick MacManus and his Imposters band uncorked more than two hours of songs, and schtick, ranging from the Trenchtown grit of Watching the Detectives (Steve Nieve's keyboard was a slinky marvel) to the sprawling heartache echo of I Want You to the final slam-dance of sheer adrenaline shot Pump It Up.
Throughout the very loose, very fun night, Costello — or "Napoleon Dynamite" as he dubbed his top-hatted, cane-waving ringmaster alter ego — invited fans to step to that looming Technicolor Spinning Songbook onstage and give it a whirl. He motioned to the 40-plus songs and wryly announced: "Some of them are like my friends; some of them have betrayed me."
First up to play: Kelly Larkin, 24, of Orlando, who landed on the word "Happy" — which led Costello and his on-the-fly three-piece act to launch into songs from 1980's postpunk masterpiece Get Happy!! which included I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down.
Costello is a notoriously restless artist, and his 35-year career has taken him all over the genre spectrum: punk, country, jazz, that gorgeous team-up with Burt Bacharach. But this Revolver Tour is ripe with hits, or at least near-misses, that dot the early days of his prolific catalog. The opening cuts blurred together with a reckless, near-violent energy: I Hope You're Happy Now, Heart of the City, Miracle Man, Mystery Dance, Radio Radio.
With spastic movements, and constantly thumbing his glasses back on his face, Costello dared the audience to keep up. Stomping on effects pedals, he'd follow the whims of his audience (Clubland, Everyday I Write the Book) with his own fanciful wanderings. During a solo acoustic intermission (as his band "put on makeup for the big glam-rock finish") he covered the the Flying Burrito Brothers' Hot Burrito #1, to honor that band's recently fallen bassist Chris Ethridge. That, however, reminded him of his own Shipbuilding, which he did as his band, scrambling to join in, returned for a finale that include Alison and (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?
Costello's most rebellious maneuver, however, came during a quiet moment, as he reworked a song from the Great Depression (Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?). An assortment of loudmouths started spewing nonsense into the night, interrupting the performer. So Costello stepped away from the mike — but kept singing all the same. It was the slickest bit of crowd control I've seen. The place, select morons included, shushed in a hurry. Elvis Costello, still the coolest punk on the block.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.