Elvis Costello @Nottingham Royal Centre 02/03/20

3 stars (out of 5)

0

Oh, I just don’t know where to begin…Accidents Will Happen. In late 2018, this venue played host to the early dates of an Elvis Costello tour which didn’t get much further. He was diagnosed with a form of prostate cancer and despite some lurid headlines, he recovered and here he is back treading the boards many, many years after angry young manhood.

So it seems a little impolite to, well…I dunno.

The support act kind of underlined the problem here. Singer/songwriter Ian Prowse was very hale, hearty, full of verve, vigour and twinkle, a combination of scouse/Irish wit and charm and poppiness. Clearly thrilled to be playing such a big venue with such a ‘name’ he claimed his eight-year-old daughter came out to see him in Liverpool on the first night of the tour; and that was ‘the first time she’d seen him’ which I don’t think is quite what he meant. He also offered to buy everybody a drink if they met him at the merch stand after his set…careful, Ian. Last time one of our lot made a similar claim it cost me thousands. Seriously though he was very listenable as were his fellow troubadours but the lack of a bass guitar can very rarely be compensated for by a keyboard, I reckon. The final song in the set, “Does This Train Stop on Merseyside” is a bit of a stonker as well. Keep eyes and ears open for Ian Prowse. A good listen.

Elvis, on the other hand…the tour is called Just Trust 2020, and we kick off with a ‘sighter’ from the ’81 ‘Trust’ album, “Strict Time”. I usually allow bands one or two to get settled and to let any gremlins work their way out so we won’t dwell on this one much, followed by “Clubland” and “Greenshirt” which, although intense seemed to be pretty much all over the place mix-wise. I know the venue has a bit of a reputation for wayward sound but this was a really wild ride, a sort of rumbling, grumbling mess. It seemed to these ears that the opposite of what should have been the case was the truth; they were playing like they’d only just met. And with former Attractions Steve Naïve on keyboards (lots of them) and Pete Thomas on drums and with a settled line-up in the Imposters, this took me rather by surprise.

And come the first of the ‘Hits’, the towering majesty of “Accidents Will Happen”, another problem seems to emerge. Occasionally in later life, singers will not be able to hit particular notes. But this doesn’t seem to be the problem here…his vocal range still seems to be there…but the timing is all over the place and sometimes he just seems to be ‘chasing after’ the song; which is a problem for the sharp, angular, quick-fire demands of many of his older hits. His singers/dancers throw themselves about all over the place to give the impression of concerted, rhythmic responses to the music, but they can’t throw me off the scent. I dig in for an evening of irregular but profound wincing. Great, great song, though.

And then “Better Watch Your Step” and a clutch of others…but I’m SO distracted by now. It isn’t just the timing…he’s Very Flat on occasion…then he’ll throw in one of those soooo Elvis vocal trills and you’ll forgive him…and then for the next 30 seconds he sounds like he’s in the wrong key…the mix is beyond muddy and…I’m not sure he can actually hear himself. Can he hear himself?

“I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”. Love the song. She’s last year’s model. It’s a killer. Band layer it intensely but he’s chasing the song again…why? I can’t sing but I could probably read the lyrics so they’d actually ‘fit’ the song… all over the place…

…into one for the 2018 album “Suspect My Tears” and possibly because it was written when he was an older man, he does actually get this one to ‘fit’ and glory be, the mix slowly starts to get a bit tighter and more ‘approachable’. After which I’m treated to Elvis telling me he hates me in “Radio Radio” complete with bonkers ‘Farfisa’-style organ and intense and angst-filled playlist envy. Sorry Elvis. Just not radio-friendly, that one.

“Watching the Detectives” is, though. Backlit in eerie green, Costello as ‘spook’ comes to the fore and, at this juncture, it is important I mention the guitar playing. His various ancient and weird-looking guitars and barrage of foot pedals are no doubt very necessary for despite the barrage of keyboards Steve Nieve bounces around behind, there is only one guitarist and it is EC. And the guitar sound is universally excellent, very subtle and supple where required, very sharp and incisive in ways which the interesting but wayward voice now seems less than.

Sitting down at the piano we get the ‘country’ section of the show, including a quite rambling and off-key “Good Year for the Roses”. Always a broken heart/broken voice job, this seriously pushes the boundaries on that particular concept.

From that to another from the 2018 album “Look Now”, “Burnt Sugar is so Bitter” a song co-written by Carole King and this is a right old work-out on a song which tells one of the oldest stories in songwriting in a typically direct way. This worked really well, Steve Nieve’s rattling, empty ‘ice rink’ organ sound giving a hollow, almost ‘Northern Soul’ feel. And speaking of which…”High Fidelity”, a hit from the ‘soul’ album “Get Happy”, which once again, seems to leave his voice behind. Otherwise, just great. But…

“A Whisper to a Scream” jerks us back again to “Trust” and it is an intense delivery, which then melts in to the sublime “Alison” from the first album recorded for about six quid in 1976/7 depending on who you talk to. This is gorgeous and even though the voice does that wandering thing again there are moments within this when all is forgiven, just to hear it ‘live’ again; especially when that folds seamlessly into a marriage with Motown beauty “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”. Every tune is working to a crescendo now and it would be spectacularly unfair to point out that despite the compromising of songs by a meandering voice, the audience are really warming to this and 80’s FM radio A-lister “Every Day I Write The Book” arrives right on cue and as described in the brochure.

And then “Pump it Up” nearly blows the roof off the place. At the end of it, this guy is a showman. Nobody is going to leave this venue feeling like they’ve been short-changed, I will say that much. And as is the current vogue for encore avoidance, the band stay on the stage and soak up well-deserved applause for a strong and professionally-delivered set. Not their fault the old lad’s struggling to hold a tune on occasion now.

And our final tunes for the night are the “Give Peace a Chance” section of the show and who can blame him? Certainly not I when this commences with “Shipbuilding”. Written by Costello and long-time Madness producer Clive Langer, I have to say I FAR prefer Robert Wyatt’s tremulous, fragile version but I’m here tonight and I’ll take this….but he’s off wandering again and he can’t point at not being able to live with the pace of the song here…and it’s all a bit so-so until he finishes the song on a shimmering, jazzy ‘When we could be diving for pearls’ which just seems to hang in the air and really does force listeners to face the compromises we make with the world in order to be ‘of’ the world.

Which, of course, rumbles straight into a spirited, very ‘dashing’ rock ‘n’ roll version of “Oliver’s Army” which ‘only’ got to Number 2, combining fairly ‘confrontational’ lyrics with the sort of piano that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Abba single. Part of our ‘Should have got to number 1; God, where were you?’ club repertoire, anyone would have been excused for thinking that was that, as it could well have been, but pacifist’s corner ended very appropriately and rather touchingly with Brinsley Schwarz’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and that was indeed it, standing ovations all round the crowd no doubt shuffling off into a cold night warmed to the cockles by the memory of familiar tunes played stirringly….and how many of them would recall great acres of vocal creakiness the following morning?

Absolutely well worth going to see but an increasingly flawed masterpiece as the vocals struggle to live with the songs he’s created, I’d like to think he was throwing stuff about when he got off stage because he couldn’t hear what was going on or he’d just had an ‘off night’. But. Maybe it is Twilight Time.