High-octane Elvis can still fire up the full wattage
Helen Brown reviews Elvis Costello at De Montfort Hall, Leicester
Hy started out as an angry young Liverpudlian and matured pricklishly through
the more disciplined schools of jazz, country, lounge, blues and classical
music, the man who strode out on to the stage of Leicester's De Montfort
Hall was that curious entity: a precision punk.
Frowning down at his instrument with the contorted concentration of a concert pianist slamming into a Rachmaninov concerto, and jerking his guitar with the high-octane energy of a teenager, Elvis Costello goes from 0-60 faster than any other live performer of his peer group. Sparked up without introduction, his opening section struck the flint of favourites such as Radio Radio against the more polished steel of the blues-based Country Darkness from his new album, The Delivery Man.
His audience were initially less sure of themselves. There was no clear consensus on how those who once pogoed sweatily to the bespectacled beat should move in middle age.
They crossed their arms uncomfortably, consoling themselves with the odd shell-shocked spasm before self-consciousness kicked in.
Not normally one for reminiscences, Costello remembered an early visit to Leicester with a Stiff Records collective, when the acts were plied backstage with dubious cooked meats and rancid pork pies, most of which later reappeared on stage. "I won't forget the sight of that piece of boiled ham hanging from the frame of my glasses," he smirked.
Through it all, the marvel was how Costello's vocals could veer from enraged splutter to cool croon. The crowd swayed like solemn metronomes through Shipbuilding. Younger audience members, who might have been more familiar with Suede's cover version, seemed hypnotised by the less histrionic, harder-hitting emotion of the real thing.
And as Costello stepped slowly back from the microphone, conjuring that lost dream of "diving for pearls" in the dimming light, there was a gradual, communal exhalation and a hush that swelled over several seconds before being ruptured by applause.
Having stomped their way with him through the obligatory Pump It Up and (the crowd finally shakes it loose) Oliver's Army, his band the Imposters took a back seat for the reflective, lo-fi finale The Scarlet Tide, the "anti-fear" anthem, co-written with T Bone Burnett, which concludes The Delivery Man.
On that album, Costello muses on the nature of a "burnt out filament / flies still buzzing around the bulb". And although the spectating flies did more nervous twitching than real buzzing in Leicester, Costello proved he can still fire up the full wattage.