Back in July, when Elvis Costello announced the impending release of Look Now, the new album that's his first in a decade with his longtime band, the Imposters, the British songwriter also shared more alarming news.
He disclosed that he had recently had surgery to remove "a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy." And though the treatment was successful, he was forced to cancel a series of European shows because the recovery was taking longer than expected.
Costello stressed that he'd been exceedingly lucky that his cancer had been caught so early. "You should start playing the Lotto," his doctor told him. But anxious fans who have been following him since as long ago as 1977 — when the bespectacled angry young man released My Aim Is True, one of the great debuts of all time — were nonetheless filled with "Oh, no, not Elvis Costello!" panic.
So Saturday night in Atlantic City, where Costello played the Etess Arena at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on the second night of the "Look Now and Then" tour, became a place for nerves to be calmed and sighs of relief to be exhaled.
Fronting the current version of the Imposters that now includes backup singers Briana Lee and Kitten Kuroi as well as drummer Pete Thomas, keyboard player Steve Nieve and bassist Davey Faragher, the 64-year-old singer-guitarist looked hale and hearty and was in strong voice throughout.
In short, the good news is that he was the same old emotionally intense, engaging and overflowing with ideas Elvis Costello throughout the 1 hour 45 minute show — but also newly improved. (No mention of his health travails was made: Costello limited his stage patter to song introductions and calling the the band's trip to their next show, in Washington, a journey on "the highway to hell.")
Part of the upgrade has to do with the presence of Lee and Kuroi, formidable vocalists who, along with the also-singing Faragher, collectively ease the burden on Costello to do all the enunciating in his intricately worded songs.
The clear highlight of the show came when the two women moved from side stage to center to stand with the front man on a marvelously opened up arrangement of "Alison" on which Costello himself hit a higher note than I can ever recall him reaching, and a buoyant "Everyday I Write the Book" that brought many in the otherwise sedentary crowd, mostly in Costello's age cohort, to their feet.
The other energizing effect came the infusion of high-quality new material. The historically prolific Costello has slowed the pace of his recording career in recent years, releasing his last previous album, Wise Up Ghost, with the support of Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots, in 2013, and back in the mid-'00s, he was fond of sending out the false alarm in interviews that he might give up making new albums for good.
With Look Now, which came out last month, he's clearly put that diffidence behind him and reengaged with startling positive results, in part through songs that are collaborations with songwriting heroes.
In some cases, he's revived past team ups, as with "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," written with Carole King in 1996, and delivered with girl group swagger with the aid of Lee and Kuroi at the casino showroom on Saturday.
Look Now also includes three new songs written with nonagenarian orchestral master Burt Bacharach, with whom Costello previously worked on Painted From Memory in 1998. All three, "Don't Look Now," "He's Given Me Things" and "Photographs Can Lie," the latter which included a snippet of Bacharach and Hal David's "The Look of Love," were delivered with delicacy and grace at the Hard Rock.
And, of course, the show also rocked. The Etess Arena deserves credit for upping the entertainment quotient in always-attempting-a-comeback Atlantic City – Bob Dylan, Kevin Hart, Tim McGraw, and Mariah Carey are all on their way to the Boardwalk showroom.
But it's hardly an inviting venue: The sight lines are less than ideal in the exceedingly wide rectangular room, and particularly during the first half of Saturday's set the sound was boomy and murky. Thankfully, Costello and his longtime mates had the muscle to power through and make the most of it. By the time he zeroed in on the gospel-soul self-confrontation "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," his powerful vocals and Nieve's churchy organ fills were in sync, and the ripping encores of "Pump It Up" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" were felt with fully intended impact.