Few modern songwriters have had a career with the scope of Elvis Costello. Although he's still best known for the spiky punk of his early hits, he's explored — and most importantly succeeded in — a dizzying array of styles including country and classical music.
And it was the latter which was to the fore last night at St George's. Ever the unpredictable artist, Costello has returned to a collaboration he first forged in 1993 with classical four-piece The Brodsky Quartet. Their album, The Juliet Letters, may have only found its way into the homes of the most devoted of fans but it remains an intriguing oddity in his back catalogue.
But first, a red herring. As Costello took the stage the quartet glided into the unmistakable first few bars of "Accidents Will Happen." So were we to experience a retooling of his greatest hits for strings? Well, yes and no.
In among liberal sprinklings of the aforementioned Juliet Letters was a rummage around the dustier parts of his back pages.
The starkness of Costello's voice set against such minimal backing was at first startling, but his vocals have grown richer, warmer and stronger over the past 30 years and were more than up to the challenge at hand.
Jacqueline Thomas on cello gave the first selection from The Juliet Letters — "For Other Eyes" — palpable dramatic tension before the quartet adopted a percussive approach to Brutal Youth's "Rocking Horse Road."
Costello even slipped in a little refrain of The Troggs' "Wild Thing" to win a quick giggle from the audience. And either my ears were deceiving me, or there was mischief, too, in "I Almost Had a Weakness" where the quartet riffed away on the Looney Tunes cartoon theme song.
Costello drew on his vast experience throughout, regularly wandering off mic to give his vocals subtle depth of field. "You Turned To Me" was sung with a smooth croon and the Irish folk song, "Raglan Road," was beautifully delivered.
For "All This Useless Beauty," Costello finally grabbed an acoustic guitar which had tantalisingly lain in wait at the back of the stage for the preceding 45 minutes.
"Pills and Soap" was a mid-set highlight given new vibrancy with the taut string accompaniment. "Still," a hushed ballad from his album North, was another treat, too.
A storming reimagined "Either Side of the Same Town" then led us into a powerful trio of anti-war songs. "I Thought I'd Write To Juliet" was Costello's own take on correspondence he'd received from a Gulf War soldier. It was given added weight, too, by the eerie way violinists Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton made their instrumentals wail like air raid sirens.
Seamlessly, Costello then rushed headlong into "Bedlam" — an urgent rocker now recast as a sparring match between acoustic guitar and string section.
And then came a song which still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, "Shipbuilding." Costello's emotive critique of the Falklands conflict is as good a protest song as you'll ever hear. You could hear a pin drop and it was the clear stand-out moment in the set.
By encore time, he was wandering around the front of the stage unamplified, delivering a new song and having fun with the old 30s standard "PS I Love You."
The hardcore Costello fans will have been in their element and even the most occasional admirer must have been won over by one of the most charismatic and mesmerising singer-songwriters of this, or any, generation.