Elvis Costello returns to the Warner Theatre 38 years after a legendary performance

The Washington Post: Dave McKenna: November 4th 2016

Elvis Costello endures. Early into his wondrous Thursday appearance at the Warner Theatre, the Liverpool legend reminded the crowd that he’d played the same venue once before — “38 years ago,” he said.

To Costello’s hardcore flock, that 1978 Warner concert, which came on his first U.S. tour, remains a gig for the ages. The show was broadcast live locally on WHFS, a long-dead FM station, but back then the coolest alternative rock outlet the D.C. market had ever had. One critic from the George Washington University student newspaper, in a review that has been making the rounds on Costello fan websites since the Internet appeared, presciently predicted after the show that the “new star on the rock scene has enough material to stick it out a few years.” (Not so prescient: The same critic in that same review appended “unlike Bruce Springsteen” to his prediction.) And Costello cemented the Warner show’s immortality in 2008 by officially releasing the recording as a live album on its 30-year anniversary.

So if Costello had a lot to live up to on his return visit, he more than filled the bill. His two-hour, 45-minute set both wore out the fans in the packed house, most of whom were old enough to have also attended that vintage set, and left them wanting more.

He now calls his backup combo the Imposters, a group that has keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, who’ve toured with him since the 1970s and still rock as hard as ever. Costello spent most of the evening looking back, though slightly less far back than ’78: The current tour is concentrating on material from “Imperial Bedroom,” his brilliant 1982 album produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. As the performance reminded fans, Costello reached new heights in lyrical cleverness on this record. One basic example: “Shabby Doll” had the cute couplet “There’s a girl in this dress/There’s always a girl in distress.” But on that tune and so much of “Imperial Bedroom,” Costello’s wordplay and wordiness were wonderfully overwhelmed by melody; “You Little Fool,” “Beyond Belief” “Man Out of Time,” “Human Hands” and, heck, pretty much everything he performed from that collection were blessed with hooks so memorable they took fans right back to that time they first heard them.

Costello, a much happier guy in middle age, told tales of the inspiration for some of his old songs that weren’t off “Imperial Bedroom.” “Accidents Will Happen,” he said with dubious factuality, was actually written immediately after and about a brief, booze­fueled romance with a cabdriver in Tucson. And “Watching the Detectives” was a tale of a woman actually watching a TV show about law enforcement in 1976. “It was probably ‘Starsky & Hutch,’ ” he said, as if the night wasn’t already loaded with enough period-piece touchstones.

He ended the evening with a trio of classics. The retro-proto-neo-ska-rocker “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and just-plain-rocker “Pump It Up,” both of which were also played at his 1978 Warner show, incited mobs of fans to form at the front of the stage and loads of others to dance in the aisles throughout the theater. The proceedings hit a kinetic level not often seen at concerts headlined by performers of Costello’s vintage with the epic closer, “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Just as he had the last time he filled this room, Costello looked like he’s going to stick around a while. Heck, maybe even longer than Springsteen.