The last gig in May was in a cellar bar in Edinburgh which held about a hundred people and the first one in June is The Royal Albert Hall which holds about five thousand. I’m going to be honest with you, I normally try to avoid the Albert Hall; the acoustics may be great for The Proms and orchestral music generally, but anything percussive and bottom-heavy usually sounds like a sock full of custard hitting a wall. There; I’ve said it. There may be an acoustic sweet spot, but I’ve no idea where it is and I feel sorry for any sound engineer who gets that particular gig.
Elvis Costello is one those artists who has been around so long, and written so many great songs that, like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, he’s entitled to a bit of leeway with his live and recorded output. Just like all of those legends (maybe with the exception of The Boss), he sometimes pushes our tolerance close to the limit and tonight was no exception, but I’ll come back to that. This tour features the “Spectacular Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook”, where members of the audience are invited on stage to spin the giant wheel to pick a song from the extensive back catalogue or a theme that allows Elvis or a band member (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher) to choose where the set goes next.
The first six songs were relentless, with the band playing flat out, too fast and leaving no gaps between songs. It sounded a lot like the 1978 El Mocambo official bootleg, and I think we all know that it wasn’t just youthful exuberance and adrenaline to blame on that occasion. It meant that songs like “High Fidelity” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” were lost in a headlong rush to the first spin of the wheel. Thankfully, the interactive element of the set forced some much-needed changes of pace. From the first spin of the wheel, things became less frantic as Elvis put on his Napoleon Dynamite, Master of Ceremonies persona and introduced members of the audience aided and abetted by the mysterious Josephine and the go-go dancer Dixie de la Fontaine.
I’m not even going to attempt to give you a complete setlist for a three hour performance, but there were a lot of highlights (and a couple of lowlights), so here we go. We got “Girls Talk” (better known to most as a cover by Dave Edmunds) fairly early courtesy of the wheel, which also gave the band the chance to play a more soulful live version of “Every Day I Write the Book”. It was nice to see Elvis totally ignore the wheel’s selection to throw in “(The Angels Wanna Wear my) Red Shoes” because one of the audience spinners wanted to hear it. The “Cash” segment of the wheel also gave us the obvious Johnny Cash cover, but also a Rosanne Cash song, which is always going to be fine by me. There was also a cameo appearance by the wonderful Bonnie Raitt who, unfortunately, didn’t sing or play but did come along to say hello and be serenaded by Elvis.
A spin of the wheel also gave Steve Nieve the chance to deliver his stunning piano backing on one of my favourite Elvis songs, “Shot With his Own Gun”, which opens with the line “How does it feel now you’ve been undressed by a man with a mind like the gutter press”. As always, this song was made more powerful by the stripped-down backing which also gave a contrast to the first verse of “Oliver’s Army” before the full band kicked in for the rest of the song.
“Jimmie Standing in the Rain” was a perfect fit with the vaudevillian atmosphere of the performance, which you almost expected to lead in to “God’s Comic”, but it was another song from “Spike” which grabbed the attention. “Tramp the Dirt Down” was an angry song, and rightly so, when it was released in 1989, less than two years before Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her party, but I’m puzzled by the need to play it now apart from the obvious unthinking kneejerk reaction it received; bit of a cheap shot, really. If you want to score political points, the haunting live version of “Shipbuilding” stands the test of time much better and should be the one that demonstrates a commitment to something more than just pop songs.
The encores were a return to the hundred mph enthusiasm of the opening section, but with the audience fully behind the band at last as they delivered runaway versions of “Watching the Detectives”, “Pump it Up” and, ironically for this location, “(I Don’t Want to go to) Chelsea”. Just before I get to the main highlight, I’ve got a few observations. The dynamics of the show, particularly at the beginning, could have been better; the endings of the songs could have been less overblown; and, Elvis could have turned the wick down on the guitar solos. At times he strayed into Neil Young territory and that’s a dangerous place to be unless you’re Neil Young (even then it’s hit and miss).
Maybe I’m just being too picky. The Elvis back catalogue contains some stunning songs and even a three hour set means missing out on some favourites; I would have loved to hear “Alison”, “Green Shirts” and “Good Year for the Roses”, but I got to hear “Shot with his Own Gun”, which I really didn’t expect. The last song of the night was Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”, which made my night anyway, but there was still a surprise to come. Steve Nieve dashed off stage and followed a crew member upstairs as the rest of the band played on. Seconds later, the band was augmented by the thunderous sounds of the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ as one of pop and rock’s greatest keyboard players had the chance to finish off the set in a unique way; I certainly won’t forget it.
I had a few reservations but, as a spectacle, (no pun intended) this was wonderful; loads of great songs, great performances and audience involvement. I’d go back and do it again.