Review of concert from 2001-06-26: with Steve Nieve, Brodsky Qrt, Pete Thomas & DaveF; Royal Festival Hall; Meltdown 2001
Guardian, 2001-06-28
- Jonathan Romney


Elvis Costello, king of surprises

Elvis Costello
Royal Festival Hall, London
Rating *****

Jonathan Romney

Thursday June 28, 2001


For the past few years, it has not always been clear what the point of Elvis Costello was. He has become an expert at keeping himself interested, diversifying into umpteen left-field projects - collaborating with Burt Bacharach, putting in time as a fellow Jazz Passenger, and most recently, playing Svengali to opera singer Ann-Sofie von Otter.

It is obviously a healthy move for him, trading in the conventional solo role for gentleman-scholarhood, but he has also come close to being a high-culture dilettante. You sometimes wish he would just come out and, well, entertain us.

Ever the man of surprises, that's exactly what he did for his slot at Robert Wyatt's Meltdown. The show was billed as a duo date for Costello and long-serving keyboards man Steve Nieve, but the latter, looking shaggy and Lennonish, took a self-deprecating back seat while Costello appeared as relaxed and genial as he has ever been.

Much of the set mixed back-catalogue rarities such as The Great Unknown with an experimental research-and-development platform for new songs. Costello positioned himself behind a table of electronics and produced some galvanisingly strange sounds, mixing waves of processed guitar with clunking programmed rhythms and deep, spongy bass patterns.

Some of the fragmentations involved suggest that Costello might soon put out a song album as skewed and tactile as recent Radiohead. Admittedly, it was a risky business, a thunderous Hurry Down Doomsday just about emerging intact from a rainstorm of crunching noise.

He built a new narrative piece, When I Was Cruel, around atmospheric samples with a distinct Portishead feel; with lyrics that lived up to its title, it might be one of Costello's best numbers yet.

A more placid section had Costello reunited with the Brodsky Quartet, playing some of the less tortuous numbers of their collaboration The Juliet Letters, as well as a florid rearrangement of New Lace Sleeves - ambitious, and not without a whiff of vanity.

It looked as though the nearest Costello would get to pleasing the greatest-hits constituency was a lucid Shipbuilding, with Nieve contributing his famous Rachmaninov flourishes on piano. Then came the surprise twist - a dazzling mini-set punched out con brio by a new Attractions line-up, with Pete Thomas on drums, and bassist Davy Farragher.

A full eight numbers comprised material largely of late-1970s vintage, from the thumping You Belong to Me and Pump It Up, to that fine old Kleenex-wringer Alison. For long-running artists, a well-loved back catalogue can either be a burden or an excuse to be lazy and cynical (think of Bowie, still trotting out Life on Mars).

But Costello seems to have found the perfect balance between innovation and the jukebox factor, and - portly and avuncular as he is now - he proved to be every bit as impassioned as he was in his skinny-tie youth. He's probably enjoying himself a lot more, too.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001