Nick Lowe and Shakespeare were wrong, about having to be cruel to be kind. A tour stop Tuesday in Anaheim that had Lowe supporting headliner Elvis Costello as an opening act before eventually joining him for three climactic duets was kindly and 100% cruelty-free, reuniting the two former studio workmates in a fashion that made it seem as if no 40-year intervals had passed at all, except for the incidental actually-getting-better factors. (You’re not getting older, you’re getting Basher, etc.)
Not that the show at the City National Grove of Anaheim — one of several SoCal appearances this week by Costello, with and without Lowe in tow — needed its crowning dream-teaminess to come up aces. Costello’s current sets with the Imposters represent the best example rock ‘n’ roll has at the moment of a vast catalog of classic material played with improvisational vigor by one of the great bands the medium has known, augmented by fresh material that can stand proudly alongside the vintage. “Indoor Fireworks” was one of the quieter songs performed Tuesday, but it’s an apt description of what’s occurring on this can’t-miss outing (with apologies to the shed stops where the group pyro happens outdoors).
More from Variety
Nothing has been guaranteed on this tour — certainly nothing as jejune as a standard nightly setlist for Costello, who, in 19- or 20-song sets, has been doing about eight or nine songs different each night from the show before. He’s even been calling extra audibles in the form of songs making their tour premiere as the outing nears its end, like a jet burning off extra fuel just before landing. Lowe had generally stuck around to sing a little in Costello’s set early in the tour, then had favored early trips back to the hotel, apparently, as it went along. But there was something about Anaheim — maybe it was the urge to have competitive firepower with the major league ballgame happening across the parking lot — that made Lowe want to leave the bus running while he joined Elvis for a full three numbers: “Indoor Fireworks” (written by EC, covered by Lowe), “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (written by Lowe, covered by Costello) and, most surprisingly, “Alison.”
On that last ballad, the guest singer offered far different phrasing than Costello’s traditional reading, taking out the faint sense of vituperation and, in his gentler tones, sounding as if he fully emphasized with why the heroine put up with having her hands shmushed into a cake. It wouldn’t be like him to be bitter about a bride he knew when she used to rock ‘n’ roll (to quote another wedding song that figured into his opening set).
Lowe’s set was not unpredictable or turn-on-a-dime like the headliner’s, although the band that has backed him for years on his infrequent tour outings, Los Straitjackets, does mix things up in a nightly two-song interlude while Lowe takes a break from the stage. (In Anaheim, the all-instrumentals group played the theme from “The Magnificent Seven” in place of the cover of “My Heart Will Go On” they alternate in and out.) Los Straitjackets still keep up the wrestling-mask gambit, which is understandable; it must be a burden for a former surf-rock group to walk the streets, recognized and mobbed. Anyway, theirs remains a pairing that keeps on working over the years, as Lowe has a world-class pickup band at the ready when he needs one, and one that can veer between his power-pop and country-rock sides with no sign of stretching.
Costello did his extra bit to make it a more Lowe-centric night than normal by opening his part of the show with his never-recorded, 120-mph reading of the other singer’s “Heart of the City,” as he occasionally has in the past, if never previously on this tour. From there, he mixed some tour standbys — being bathed in green is always a sure sign “Green Shirt” is about to commence, however teased-out the intro is — with rarely played numbers like the never-unfashionable “American Gangster Time.”
Costello was the master of the interpolation before every 12-year-old came to know that word, throwing extra songs in in the middle of others being his way of traditionally keeping an “Alison” interesting for himself every night after 45 years. Tuesday night, his “Watching the Detectives” offered an extended mid-section that incorporated “Invisible Lady,” a noir-styled song he co-wrote for a Mingus tribute way back when; even diehards looked confused at the lengthy departure. There were more looks of recognition when “Either Side of the Same Town,” a song from his Mississippi album of 2004, turned into a back-and-forth medley with an obvious inspiration for it, Dan Penn’s 1960s Southern soul classic “The Dark End of the Street.” The singer’s unerring falsettos as the strangers-when-we-meet song reached its soaringly lonesome peaks established that this would be a night when one of rock’s all-time great singers would be in peak form.
Another left turn came with the performance of “Big Stars Have Tumbled,” an unrecorded song that went unintroduced but that some buffs would know as a number from his still-unproduced “A Face in the Crowd”-based stage musical. Of all the songs from that thwarted show Costello has introduced in his sets over the years, this may be the one that best stands alone without any need of a we-join-this-story-in-progress stage intro. It served as a turquoise mood-setter for “Almost Blue,” a somber classic that hasn’t gotten much airing lately amid his mostly frenetic shows with the Imposters, but which maybe needed exactly that setup for a RBI.
Some of the other standouts included five songs from this year’s “The Boy Named If” — which maybe sounds like an overgenerous amount in any other artist’s touring life, but if anything, seemed about one new song too short, given that “If” is Costello’s certainly most energized and maybe just best album since the ’90s. With the latest album, he has two songs that are the kind of rave-ups he hasn’t written in decades — “Magnificent Hurt” and “Farewell OK” — which seem more likely to endure in his sets in years to come than some of his other, less live-friendly 21st century material has. “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is too complicated to count among that same roadhouse genre, but as a melodic, yearning rocker, it ranks with the best songs Costello has ever written. The only problem with the recorded version was that it ends too quickly, but that’s something that Costello and current tour guest Charlie Sexton took care of with the extended twin guitar leads the song always demanded.
Sexton has been a phenomenal addition to the Imposters — originally announced as an auxillary player for a date that keyboard player Steve Nieve couldn’t male in 2021, then sticking around ever since. Whether he’ll remain with the band as never-endingly as he did with Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour will have to be seen. But having two great lead-and-rhythm guitarists in the group (Costello has turned into a terrific one himself, late in his career) is quite a wrinkle for a singer-songwriter who originally made his name with a long succession of albums that were remarkable for having virtually no guitar solos. Who would have expected to see Costello and Sexton jamming out — just infrequently enough that you don’t get too used to the idea — like they were a 2020s Allmans?
The two backing vocalists that Costello employed for several tours prior to the pandemic are missed, in spots, but in Sexton and bassist Davey Faragher, the singer now has two capable backup singers where for the first two decades of his career he had none, and it allows him to do a call-and-response like “Farewell OK” that he never could’ve before. (Having a virtuoso like Sexton on board also finally allows the intro of “Alison” to be played the more complicated way it was first recorded, he’s pointed out.)
One other benefit that has come with having Sexton on stage and not a pair of dedicated backup singers is the ability to make more spontaneous choices. On nights like these, Costello’s shows live in the best of all possible rock worlds: mining a brilliant catalog that is known for nothing if not the intellectual preciseness of the writing, and taking it out with a hard-rocking band and a jazz-inspired ethos where you get the feeling anything could happen. And when Lowe, whose production of the early records helped set the template for all this, turns up as a fellow failed suitor for Alison, it’s extra frosting on her — and our — cake.
Best of Variety