Revisiting classic albums on anniversary years is a tempting career strategy for any artist with a decade or more under their belt. Records used to sell more than they do now, and more tickets can be moved to fans wishing to revisit the glories of their youth than those willing to buy into the idea that the new stuff could be as good as the old.
Elvis Costello is willing to play along, but only if he can do it in his own unpredictable way. (As opposed to U2, who will embrace the obvious by playing the 30-year-old Joshua Tree from start to finish on Sunday.)
It’s 2017, right? So the easy money Costello play would be to commemorate the 40th anniversary of My Aim Is True, his 1977 angry-young-man debut.
He did touch on that album during his show with the Imposters at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby on Saturday night, with an “Alison” performed on acoustic guitar with vocal accompaniment from singers Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, plus the blue mood of “Watching the Detectives,” with entertaining visuals featuring vintage film noir movie posters on the big screen behind him.
Instead of Aim, Costello built his show around Imperial Bedroom, his 1982 album also celebrating a round number anniversary. He didn’t do every song, nor perform them in order. But he had excellent musical reasons for taking on the album, which marked a move away from the direct hit intensity of his punk and pub rock inspired previous work. Instead, working with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, he embraced using the studio as an aid in creating layered complicated arrangements that flowed into one another as individual pop songs that presented themselves as an extended suite.
The difficulty has been in bringing those songs and their multi-tracked vocals to life on stage. At the Tower, Costello met the challenge with the help of Imposters bassist Davey Faragher, who reimagined the parts played by Bruce Thomas on the original record and has added vocal dimension to the band every since joining Costello in 2001. But mostly it put to use the talents of Kuroi and Lee in freeing up the 62 year old Costello to sing in a more relaxed manner, rather than cram too many syllables into an individual vocal line.
The show stretched to close to 2½ hours, with lots of singular treats, from a snippets of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (perhaps in honor of Emerick, who worked on Sgt. Pepper) to “Shot With His Own Gun” from 1981’s Trust, a showcase for the pianissimo of longtime sideman Steve Nieve.
Costello, who wore a red Fedora cocked to one side of his head for much of the show — but did not perform “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” — played the piano himself for “A Face In The Crowd,” a new song inspired by the 1957 Elia Kazan movie starring Andy Griffith about populism run amok that many observers have pointed to as predicting the rise of Donald Trump.
Over the course of the evening, Costello brought the seated audience to its feet on several occasions. The tour is officially called Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers, as he mixed closing crowd-pleasers such as “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” with deep cuts such as “Green Shirt” (from 1978’s This Year’s Model) and “King Horse” (from 1980’s Get Happy.)
Costello was charming and chatty throughout the well-paced show, and he had patter ready for the venue, which he first played in 1979. Early on, he said he knew that Philadelphia “is often referred to as the City of Brotherly Love but we all know it’s the city of heartbreak and torment.”
That served as an introduction to the tender, open hearted “Human Hands,” by way of informing the crowd that he had no intention of being a sourpuss though the evening. “I hate to break it to you,” he said. “But not all the songs are going to be miserable.”