If you closed your eyes during the Elvis Costello & the Sugarcanes show Wednesday night, you might have thought you were at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry -- instead of New York City's newly glitzified Beacon Theater.
Costello and his six-piece band of country virtuosos -- including Jerry Douglas on Dobro and Jim Lauderdale on backing vocals began by ripping through Merle Haggard's "Tonight, the Bottle Let Me Down," Costello's "Complicated Shadows" (a tune originally penned for Johnny Cash), and about a dozen other yee-hah gems from the group's fiddle-friendly new album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
The record had debuted at a lucky No. 13 on the Billboard chart that morning, so Costello was in the mood to entertain -- and, at times, dazzle -- the crowd. "Some call that number unlucky," he said. "But I'm not one of them!"
He led the boys through more tunes from Secret, Profane, including "Down Among the Wine and Spirits" and "My All Time Doll." Costello might have been surrounded by country stars, but he held the spotlight throughout, belting out each song with his characteristic quaver and banging his Gibson acoustic guitar hard enough to work up a healthy sweat.
He explained that the new song "She Handed Me a Mirror" was inspired by Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, a man so physically unattractive that the woman he loved rejected him in an unorthodox way: "She handed me mirror/ So I could recognize/ The distance from my heart to hers/ The pity in her eyes."
And he described a day-long songwriting session with country great Loretta Lynn this way: "We would easily have written an album's worth of songs -- if we hadn't been laughing so hard the entire time."
As charming as Costello's storytelling was, the highlight of the two-and-a-half-hour set came when the 54-year-old songwriter reinterpreted some of his greatest hits.
"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True, kept most of its original bite, but added a backroads country lilt. And the bitter-sweet "Alison" -- a powerful heartbreaker even 30 years later -- segued into a staccato instrumental featuring mandolin, accordion, and sprightly penny whistle.
"I Write the Book" had been rearranged in such a way that it took the audience about 20 seconds to recognize the melody but once they did, they applauded wildly and rose to their feet.
Costello ended the night -- after three rounds of encores -- with an inspired take on the Grateful Dead's"Friend of the Devil." The band's instrumental interplay would have made songwriter Jerry Garcia proud. But it was Costello's winking take on the lyrics about an outlaw who makes a pact with the devil that showed why he's as entertaining an artist now as he was back when he was first teaching Joe Strummer how to sing.