People were still filing in to the Waterfront when out skipped Mr Costello in a bespoke suit, cocked hat and the trademark glasses. The stage looked great with a grand piano and five guitars all in a pretty row and he picked up one of the acoustics and started strongly with "Oliver’s Army." It was a good safe start from the veteran of 30 something albums and got the crowd on his side straight away.
There is no band on this tour and a solo show like this is a great opportunity to display the finer points of song craft from one of the modern greats. And with a captive audience that’s exactly what was provided. He strummed gently through "Either Side of the Same Town," "Veronica" and a moving version of "A Good Year for the Roses" but he loses points for the odd glance at the lyrics sheet in front of him. It’s understandable that someone who has written so many songs might forget a lyric or two but a veteran of the stage shouldn’t be resorting to cheat sheets.
The first half of the set was a pretty mixed bag. His guitar playing by his own admission is a bit rough and was even out of tune through a finger picked version of "Everyday I Write the Book." Taking a seat he played "She" and a cover of "All or Nothing at All" and his voice absolutely soared sounding terrific.
There were a few touches of self-indulgence throughout the set which just didn’t work in a solo gig like this. He tried a guitar solo on "Bedlam" which sounded silly. During "Watching the Detectives" he used a loop station for what sounded like the first time. He segued one of his best songs, "Alison," into Jimi Hendrix’s "The Wind Cries Mary" which is just pointless. And the three encores were tiring.
He is a class act though and provided some magical moments as well. Striding to the front of the stage and singing a cappella for the latter half of "A Slow Drag with Josephine" which was incredible. Sitting at the piano for the first time of the night, he tore hearts apart with an incredible version of "Almost Blue." And the call and answer at the end of "Radio Sweetheart" was a standout moment from someone who was really starting to enjoy himself. He used the intro to this song to compare how things used to be in his day contrasted to the airwaves and minds now polluted by manufactured pop music and TV shows – he still has plenty to say for himself.
One of the evening’s highlights was at the start of the third encore. Some people had started leaving when sirens started thundering and a huge drum track played and Costello came bounding back out with a loudhailer in hand and blasted out "National Ransom." It didn’t sit with the tone of the rest of the gig at all which was why it worked so well. It was invigorating and confusing all at once and I loved it.
The gig was good — a great addition to the Belfast Festival and the crowd absolutely loved it. In truth he could have burped the alphabet into the microphone and the crowd would still have loved it, such is the devotion of some of his fans who wouldn’t provide the most impartial of barometers and were on their feet after each of the last eight or 10 songs, even the ropey version of "Pump It Up" which just doesn’t work without that bass line. He recovered with a big finish though and a class performance of "I Hope." It was stunning.
At 28 songs long, it was a comprehensive set and gave a marvellous demonstration of one of the most varied canons of a music icon. The crowd enjoyed it and Elvis evidently enjoyed himself. I’ll have another quick moan about some of the self-indulgence the old punk showed (three bloody encores!) but I’ll be in a massive minority of people who had anything negative to say about it. He’s back on the road next year with the band but tonight was a great opportunity to see some of the great modern pop songs played how they were conceived; with just one man and his guitar.