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Elvis Costello Took a Return Trip Through ‘Imperial Bedroom’ at the Riverside

Jul. 17, 2017
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Photo credit Kelsea McCulloch
While most artists in Elvis Costello’s shoes by now would have whittled their set lists down to a knockout 95 minutes of hits and fan favorites, coasting on easy paychecks and even easier applause, Costello has taken the harder route. Always one to shake things up, for his latest tour he’s celebrating the 35th anniversary of Imperial Bedroom, the critically adored record that broke from his usual rock ’n’ roll and revealed the scope of his compositional ambitions, luxuriating instead in the soft tones and slow tempos of jazz and orchestral pop.  

It’s an odd album to tour behind since, loved as it is, it’s not exactly a party starter—even its biggest defenders would admit that it has a tendency to drag. He had a workaround for that, though. Instead of playing the album in its entirety Sunday night at the Riverside Theater, he put it on shuffle, alongside numbers from his songbook both expected (“Alison” and “Watching The Detectives”) and not (most of the set, really). At times it felt less like the “Imperial Bedroom Tour” and more like the “Mellower Songs I Don’t Usually Get To Play Live Tour,” detouring frequently for deep cuts like “Poor Napoleon,” leisure jams like “Every Day I Write The Book,” and Bacharachian ballads (including one he actually wrote with Burt Bacharach, “This House is Empty Now.”)

For most of the show, Costello and his backing band, the Imposters, were joined by two powerhouse backing soul singers who injected some extra energy into the songs but sometimes had a tendency to overpower an already often very busy mix (did anybody expect an Imperial Bedroom-heavy show to be this loud?) Some of the set’s most memorable moments offered relief from that volume, scaling the stage down to just Costello and his longtime pianist Steve Nieve, who accompanied him on a couple of torchy new songs—“A Face in the Crowd” and “Stripping Paper.”

At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, the show was almost too generous, and some of Imperial Bedroom’s lesser numbers began to bleed together (there’s a reason “Pidgin English” and “Town Cryer” never became staples of his live shows). At the end of the night, after 26 songs and two encores, Costello ended the night with the two big crowd-pleasers it seemed as if he might skip: “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding”—a little tease of the livelier, safer show he could have performed instead.


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