One of the many good things about seeing Elvis Costello perform is that he has never treated his songs as static works, locked in the time and place he produced them.
Throughout his 40-year career, he has turned his consistently sophisticated and adventurous compositions into great-sounding records. But live, he has treated the songs as organic, dynamic vehicles, and shown himself unafraid to rearrange, reorchestrate and reimagine even his most popular hits.
Which is to say that in concert, he mixes it up some.
So appearing with his backing band the Imposters at the Wolf Trap National Park for Performing Arts in Vienna, Va., on Thursday, the 62-year-old singer-songwriter turned "… And in Every Home" into "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"; invited the Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May out to trade verses on "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down"; and stripped his signature song, "Alison," down to voice, his electric guitar and two female singers — to name just three of many examples.
It turns out the approach extends to whole albums.
Ostensibly, Costello had stopped by to play "Imperial Bedroom," a perennial entry on lists of greatest albums of all time, but he kept the concept loose. Unlike, say, U2, who played its "Joshua Tree" straight through Tuesday at FedEx Field, Costello presented songs from the 1982 album out of sequence and interspersed among other material. He didn't get to a few of them until the encores, and omitted a couple others altogether.
All of which can be frustrating for fans who just want to hear the music as they know and love it. But here, if we've learned anything, it's that we should trust Costello.
He's a virtuosic, polyglot musician who has surrounded himself with virtuosic, polyglot musicians. If he wants to spread "Tears Before Bedtime" out until it becomes something more sultry; if he thinks it's a good idea to drench "Watching the Detectives" with distortion, making it still more ominous; if he gets it in his head to extend "Pidgin English" with some nice, swirling Beatles-y psychedelia, just let him. He knows what he's doing. It will work out.
It's no small help that he has the Imposters – essentially his old backing band the Attractions, with a different bass player – at his side.
You have to be versatile to play with Costello, whose catalog ranges from punk and new wave to reggae and rhythm and blues to classic country and art song. The changes live add more layers. Keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassistt Davy Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas are adept at each of those moods – and seem to enjoy all of them. Singers Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee are a nice addition, adding soul to "Everyday I Write the Book" and filling out the more intricate vocal lines elsewhere.
Costello, whose most recent album of original material was 2013's "Wise Up Ghost" — an ambitious and well-received collaboration with the Philadelphia hip-hop group the Roots — has suggested he might be done releasing traditional albums.
But he has been working on a musical version of Elia Kazan's 1957 masterwork "A Face in the Crowd." He played a couple of new numbers Thursday, including the title song of the musical — a fine, elegiac, piano-based tune — and "Go Tell (Your Quiet Sister)," which sounded as if it might have been an "Imperial Bedroom" outtake.
"The Loved Ones"
"… And in Every Home"
"Accidents Will Happen"
"You'll Never Be a Man"
"Tears Before Bedtime"
"Moods for Moderns"
"Go Tell (Your Quiet Sister)"
"Watching the Detectives"
"The Long Honeymoon"
"Kid About It"
"You Little Fool"
"Face in the Crowd"
"Shot with His Own Gun"
"Boy with a Problem"
"I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down"
"Man Out of Time"
"Everyday I Write the Book"
"Pump It Up"
"(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding"