A recent 2,700 mile round trip to Italy by car allowed me to savour, at my leisure, Elvis Costello's. latest album Punch The Clock, (see October Backhill for full review). For me the ultimate test of a good record is whether or not I can face listening to it again after several dozen airings in the space of a few short weeks. I am pleased to report that this album passed the test. So it was in this state of mind that I attended Elvis' recent concert at the Tottenham Mayfair.
It is noteworthy that the Mayfair is not the type of venue one would expect to find this sort of event — it is, primarily, a dancehall and so, will not house more than several hundred people at most. Well, they squeezed several hundred in, and a few more judging by the stifling heat generated by the unnatural compression of human bodies on an evening which was bitterly chilly outside.
I didn't really expect to see Elvis Costello a little nervous as he trotted on to the stage to open the evening with an evocative "Pills and Soap" (accompanied only by Steve Nieve on piano), but by the end of the second number, "Let Them All Talk," this time with all the Attractions, the TKO Horns and backing singers he was totally in control of the proceedings: "We have lots more songs for you," explained Elvis "... lots more songs!" he added with a knowing grin. I lost count after twenty-five songs, and that was about half way through the set; lots more songs, indeed!
Since the vast bulk of the audience were convinced Costello fans (myself included) it would have been easy for him to have put up a mediocre performance and still send the punters home happy. As it turned out we were treated to a very entertaining and powerful evening. The man has a finely tuned sense of timing which is displayed not only in the arrangement of the sequence of songs, but in each song itself: the changes of mood, feel and rhythm endow each number with the status of mini-epic. This is the art of illusion, for Costello is the master of the three minute classic ... mini-epic, indeed!
Another matter which occurred to me that evening (with the force of the fundamental truth which strikes home for the first time but has been lurking in the shadows since the year dot) was that Costello's songs are either overtly political or about broken love affairs. Such is the emotion and power vested in the love songs that I am forced to conclude he either has the most remarkable insight since Freud or has been on the receiving end of a most tormenting, ravaging and intimate bust-up. "Alison," perhaps my favourite Costello composition, was given the full passionate treatment — he doesn't have the finest voice in the world, but, boy, the delivery had the audience captitivated. Passion, indeed!
With songs like the reflective "Shipbuilding" and a rousing version of the Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" (when he was bathed in a ring of scarlet stagelighting) Elvis leaves no room for doubt about his political persuasions. Whether you agree with him or not you cannot fail to be moved and you cannot deny that he argues his point of the view with conviction. Not to compel but to convert — praise, indeed!
That is not to say that the show lacked any lighter moments. "We're gonna do a Sheena Easton number now, 'She's A Modern Girl'," was how he introduced "Alison," and, loosening up for the end of the evening he was warm in his praise for North London for the hospitality and to his motley crew of musicians for their vitality. It was certainly interesting to see how the horn section and the backing singers added some flexibility to older songs like "Watching The Detectives," a magnificent "Clown Time Is Over" and the climax of the evening "Pump It Up." And it was in these songs, above all else, that Costello displayed his keen sense of craftmanship in the area of dynamics and structure. This is his forte: equal consideration is given to content and form — he revels his pursuit of perfection not only in spirit but also in deed!