What becomes a punk-rock legend most? When they evolve and impress as serious music-makers. Think the Clash's Joe Strummer, the Replacements' Paul Westerberg and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.
Then there's Elvis Costello, who is in a league of his own, becoming the Cole Porter of punk, offering R&B, country, jazz, rock and sophisticated pop, among other styles, during a Rock Hall of Fame career featuring one remarkably rewarding album after another.
On Saturday at the sold-out State Theatre in Minneapolis, Costello, 65, even proffered two selections from a forthcoming musical about a Wyoming radio announcer who ends up running for political office; it's based on a Budd Schulberg story that was adapted into a 1957 movie, "A Face in the Crowd," starring Andy Griffith.
Sitting at a grand piano, Costello delivered the impassioned country-soul ballad "A Face in the Crowd" and the country-gospel tent revival "Blood and Hot Sauce," which was dripping with Randy Newman-like Southern-ness, cynicism and irony. Those numbers were easily the highlights of a concert that was surprisingly short of them.
If Costello's performance last November at Northrop was one of his most satisfying here, dating back to 1978 at the defunct Longhorn punk club (which he mentioned Saturday), then this return engagement was a rare disappointment.
Costello and his band, the Imposters, were not always in sync. At times, his voice was ragged, as if he might be fighting the same flu that sidelined backup singer Briana Lee on Saturday. Moreover, the performance seemed strikingly short by comparison — 105 minutes and 21 selections vs. 150 minutes last year when he thrilled with 30 tunes.
Looking dapper in a red fedora and sequined black sport jacket, Costello offered a cross-section from his entire career, with an emphasis on early material, including from his 1977 debut "My Aim Is True," though nothing from 2018's underrated "Look Now."
Although he was his usual garrulous and witty self between songs, he seemed musically a little out of sorts much of the night. "Green Shirt" from 1979 felt restrained. "Accidents Will Happen," also from '79, felt like a collision of bad timing between Costello and longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve. "New Lace Sleeves" (1981) felt like a formless piece searching for a musical style.
Even "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," a favorite from Costello's second LP in '78, seemed disjointed, with the band failing to find its groove. The ensuing "Stations of the Cross," a 2010 sophisticated cinematic epic, failed to engage the audience even though Costello was singing on one knee at one point and ended the piece with raucous guitar jamming.
At least 1977's "Watching the Detectives" earned an enthusiastic reaction for Costello's vocals with an affected Southern accent coupled with video projections of old movie posters and pulp-novel covers for irresistible titles like "Naked Alibi" and "Murder Plays a Ukulele."
The concert turned around on the two standout tunes from "A Face in the Crowd" but still was uneven thereafter. Fueled by Nieve's Farfisa-sounding organ, the fast and furious "Mystery Dance" (1977) and the rocking "Monkey to Man" (2004) were Costello at his up-tempo finest on Saturday, then his voice lost its force on "Radio Radio" (1978) and went totally low fidelity on "High Fidelity" (1980).
While "Alison" was unforgettable last year when Costello was flanked by his two female backup singers at center stage, this time he gave the 1977 pining regret a new treatment, ending it by grafting on the Temptations' Motown classic "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" complete with spot-on falsetto. It was wonderful evidence of Costello's musical creativity and knowledge.
It reminded the faithful that no matter the musical style, no matter the issues with Costello's band or voice, his aim is true.