Elvis Costello
London. The Royal Albert Hall.
24th May 2012.

Elvis Costello‘s recent RAH show was a three hour marathon involving a random song selection process. Did it work? Is this the future of live music? Read on to find our writers thoughts on the whole do.

Amongst the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall, Elvis Costello & the Imposters deliver a storming 3 hour show, that is part revival meeting, part sleazy gameshow and part last days of the music hall.

Costello fans have grown used to a shifting persona – The Angry Young Man of the 70’s and 80’s, the awkward experimenter of the 90’s, and the worthy faux-Americana of recent years. Last time I saw him he was firmly in the grip of American roots music, it was expertly executed but by gosh it’s the dullest music of his career.

Thankfully, tonight he’s dusted off an old persona from the mid 80’s – Napoleon Dynamite. A fading gameshow host with a snarky personality and a Spectacular Spinning Songbook. This is a Wheel of Fortune, which Napoleon invites members of the audience onto stage to spin. The conceit is that Elvis & The Imposters will play whichever song it lands on, whilst the audience member cage-dances.

There’s an element of the huckster about this, and it’s probable Elvis played whatever songs he felt like. The set drew heavily from the 77-86 period, opening with a nonstop sprint through new wave favourites – Lipstick Vogue, You Belong to Me (see audience taken video below – Ed), Mystery Dance & Radio Radio. Songs are grouped together by theme. When the wheel points to “Girl” we get This Year’s Girl, Spooky Girlfriend and Party Girl.

The “new wave” era songs are delivered with a variable degree of quality Oliver’s Army is dashed off in perfunctory fashion at the end of the first encore, but Radio Radio is outstanding and Pump It Up (given a Memphis Funk arrangement) a triumph. The Americana section was a drag, a weak Stations of the Cross, leads into a half-arsed take on People Get Ready, the section only redeemed by the appearance of Nick Lowe for a stately 50’s country-style run through of Poisoned Rose.

It’s the songs from Get Happy!, Trust & Imperial Bedroom that stand out. The dignified grandeur of the venue (proclaimed by Elvis as ”the fleshspots of Knightsbridge”)and the faded showbiz shtick of the Songbook concept suits these songs written and recorded when Costello & the Attractions were jaded popstars. Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down is a rackety joy. King Horse an organ driven treat, whilst Man Out of Time (which is coupled with the Stones’ Out of Time) is majestic.

The secret star here is Keyboardist Nieve. It’s his driven, organ sound that adds much of the colour and drama to the set. From melodica on Man Out of Time to swirling demonic hammond on Running Wild, to a churchified Favourite Hour on the Royal Albert Hall’s gigantic pipe organ.

His interplay with drummer Pete Thomas on Watching the Detectives creates a tense, sparse masterpiece. The Imposters are rounded out by Davy Faragher on bass and too strident backing vocals.

There’s a political theme running through the evening. “My contribution to the Olympics is Murdoch’s head on a stick” he commented (perhaps Elvis thinks he really is lookalike MP Tom Watson) and was joined onstage by Labour MP’s Maria & Angela Eagle. Several audience members muttered about an American resident commenting on UK politics and I suspect a large proportion of the middle-aged South-Eastern audience probably support the coalition but many of the themes of his early songs such as “Shipbuilding” are bitterly relevant today.

“I never thought I’d have to sing this song again” introduced the moving Tramp the Dirt Down, but the words have a new urgency in this era of austerity –

“Just like a schoolboy, whose head’s like a tin-can
filled up with dreams then poured down
the drain
Try telling that to the boys on both sides, being
blown to bits or beaten and maimed
Who takes all the glory and none of the shame”

The show was long, but there were few lulls. Costello took the band off after two hours, only to return a minute later to play a couple of solo songs themed around the days of Music Hall.

The band returned and played for 30 further minutes before exiting after Oliver’s Army. The second encore was a triumphant Pump It Up with Tennessee Thomas joining her father on a second drum kit, this was given a fantastic Memphis funk reworked arrangement.

Then Nick Lowe returns to duet on Heart in the City and (What’s So Funny ”ËœBout) Peace, Love & Understanding for a brilliant finale.

All words Declan IOM. Declan is on twitter as @Declaniom

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