Rumors of Elvis Costello’s brush with death were greatly exaggerated. But if they have anything to do with the extra length and depth of the show he put on Thursday night at Northrop auditorium in Minneapolis, then at least something good came of them.
The British rock craftsman, 64, arrived in town seemingly eager to reiterate he’s alive and well and still singing with the same fiery fusion of elegance and exuberance that made him an unlikely rock star starting with his seminal 1977 debut “My Aim Is True.”
His almost Springsteen-like, 2½-hour set Thursday came just four months after he canceled six shows to have a “cancerous malignancy” removed, which turned into erroneous reports he was fighting cancer.
“I’ll punch the next person that puts ‘He struggles with cancer’ in a headline,” Costello told the Daily Beast last month.
No surprise, then, that the sometimes lovably thorny singer came out swinging for his first Twin Cities date in four years — and his first since 2011 with the Imposters, featuring two-thirds of his heyday band the Attractions.
“We’re gonna do songs from now, and songs from then,” Costello advised the nearly sold-out auditorium early on.
By “now,” he meant songs from his and the Imposters’ dramatic and often elegant new album, “Look Now.” By “then,” he meant songs from way back when — and a lot of them, too.
Thursday’s show was thrillingly heavy on singles and deeper cuts from Costello’s 1977-82 albums, starting with the show openers “This Year’s Girl” and “Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?”
The set list, in fact, was as sharply divided as modern American politics, with only the very old and very new — and very few songs from his middle years.
Anchored by Steve Nieve’s familiar Farfisa-style organ, Costello tore through such older nuggets as “Hand in Hand,” “Green Shirt,” “Shot With His Own Gun” and “Tears Before Bedtime,” the latter two a taste of the dramatic, balladic mastery that would become more the norm on later albums.
Costello conspicuously had fun messing around with the more obvious oldies. He played “Watching the Detectives” under dark lights with a slower-grinding arrangement, as if it were actually a Nick Cave song. Then he brought his backup singers out front, Briana Lee and Kitten Kuroi, for a soulful, lightly Motown-ized version of “Alison.”
In the encore, he turned “Accidents Will Happen” into a billowy piano ballad with Nieve getting his full Liberace on, while “Veronica” became a folky toe-tapper.
With all that crate digging, it would’ve been hard for fans to complain that Costello also mined heavily from his latest album. But much of the new material proved to be nothing to balk at.
What a contrast between the two eras, too. One minute Costello was playing a snarling two-minute rocker like “High Fidelity,” and the next he was working the stage like Tony Bennett crooning the epic piano ballad “Photographs Can Lie,” a masterful writing collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
Several of the new tunes came with an almost Dickensian story to set them up, from a tale about the guy left at a train station before “Why Won’t Heaven Help Him,” to the model from “This Year’s Girl” showing up later in life in the down-and-out “He Gives Me Things.”
Costello’s voice creaked here and there as he reached for the more operatic notes in these tunes, but he still went for them full-bore.
The “Look Now” material proved enlightening and downright fascinating enough Thursday, but it also served as a reminder that Costello is still consistently crafting strong albums like few other veteran acts can do. However long his health holds up for him to continue playing pumped-up tours like this one, here’s hoping he can at least keep making albums for decades to come.