Elvis Costello's first bracket of songs with his Imposters was obviously designed to energise the audience and was almost perfect. Almost.
Dressed in a black suit, red tie and sparkling silver shoes Costello bounded into "Accidents Will Happen" then powered along through "Tear Your Own Head Off (Doll Revolution)," "Waiting For The End Of the World" and "Radio, Radio." It was an all out assault. But there was one problem — the sound was atrocious.
Trapped in the cavernous space of the grand old Palais Theatre the music echoed: Costello's voice boomed, Pete Thomas's kick drum thumped, Davey Faragher's bass guitar thudded and Steve Nieve's keyboard struggled to be heard over the mix. Instead of getting the notoriously conservative Melbourne audience on its feet the sound puzzled them.
It took nearly an hour for Costello to win the crowd back but that he did with a show that was thirty songs long and, by its close, a virtual tour de force. It also showcased nearly every track from the latest album The Delivery Man — something that I daresay has not been done by such an established artist since Lou Reed refused to play any old songs on his tour about five years ago.
Unlike Reed, however, Costello is happy to add plenty of classics. But while he handles his past with grace he is not someone to be trapped by it. Happy to give us the "hits" he was also offering his latest songs — and their strength is that many of them stand up shoulder to shoulder with some of his best songs from earlier years.
"We're here to party," said a bemused Costello after the introductory blast, "so we'll party up here if we have to." Someone might have politely told him that we were there to party too but we just couldn't hear properly! At this point all the old chestnuts about sound engineers being deaf could be dragged out but given that Costello brought his own engineer one can only assume that it took a while to adjust the sound to such unfamiliar surroundings.
Only a day or two earlier the band had played in the open at a winery. I know it should be obvious but louder isn't always better. Just two months ago I had seen the band outdoors at the Austin City Limits Festival and even from a hundred metres back the sound was perfect. Surely it should not be that difficult to get it right indoors?
"He still seems so angry," said my partner after that first bracket. "He's not, but I am sure he'd be flattered that you thought so," I replied. The energy Costello brought to the songs was pretty impressive after all these years; he is not one to walk passionlessly through his back catalogue like others of his ilk.
The second bracket then featured three songs from the latest album The Delivery Man and, after "The Name Of this Thing Is Not Love" and "Bedlam," the muddy sound suddenly improved for the beautiful ballad "Country Darkness" as Costello reached for an acoustic guitar. Then came "Blame It On Cain" where the uptempo riffs were suddenly clear as a bell and the band seemed to gel.
The first surprise of the evening arrived with a version of "Hidden Shame" which Costello had written for Johnny Cash many years ago and which contained the inspiration for the plot of The Delivery Man. This gentle country romp was a delivered almost tongue-in-cheek but was a nice counterpoint to previous songs. I am not sure how often Costello has performed it but I wouldn't be surprised if he dragged it out especially for the night.
While "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" was greeted warmly "Good Year For The Roses" was not only a delight but also a reminder of how easily Costello has managed to slip across genres during his career. It remains a brilliant song and I still think he gives the definitive version. Just to show he hasn't lost his touch he then added "Heart Shaped Bruise" from the latest album with Davey 'Lou' Faragher (as he was called) on harmony vocals in place of Emmylou Harris who appeared on the album version.
Then a superb trilogy of "Every Day I Write The Book," "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and "High Fidelity" — with the band in full flight and Costello in full voice — finally got the crowd to its feet. "Uncomplicated" from Blood & Chocolate and the surging "Needle Time" from The Delivery Man closed the show proper in a blast of feedback.
The other surprise for audience members who have not seen Costello for a while was that his encores amounted to almost an additional hour of the show and another dozen songs. It was as if finally having won over the audience over, got them on their feet and dancing, he just didn't want to leave.
While there was a the almost obligatory rendition of "Alison" (coupled now with "Suspicious Minds" — from the other Elvis) there was an immediate slab from the new album, including the title song, the ballads "Nothing Clings Like Ivy" and "There's A Story In Your Voice" and the great, bouncy answer song to New Orleans' legend Dave Bartholomew's 1957 hit "The Monkey," "Monkey To Man."
Then with "No Action," "Oliver's Army" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Love, Peace and Understanding" ringing in our ears Costello delivered his own version of "The Monkey" — a song whose message is still as relevant now as when it was originally recorded (and whose opening riff must have inspired T-Rex). For me this was the highlight of the show and, frankly, it made my evening. Then again I am an unabashed Bartholomew fan and was delighted at this recognition. While Costello had recorded a version of the song but not included on the latest album, I never thought I would actually hear him perform it live. I would have paid just to hear that one song!
After an epic version of "Pump It Up," complete with audience sing along and clapping, Costello felt free enough to close with "Button My Lip," the opener off The Delivery Man. It was really a compliment to the audience.
After two hours Costello finally left the stage and you would have to think that he would be confident most of the fans would check out his new album, even if commercial radio have ignored it.
It was an enormously generous performance from an artist who never stands still.