A few weeks ago, when Elvis Costello was forced to postpone his Adelaide and Perth shows due to illness, I had Morrissey tour flashbacks (remember back then, pop fans of a certain age?). I resigned myself to never hearing Costello and Attractions pianist Steve Nieve in an acoustic setting. But unlike certain Mancunian singers I could name, Mr Costello proved as good as his word and the Festival Theatre was near-full of very relieved punters.
Support was provided by Michael Thomas, leader of the sadly-defunct Weddings Parties Anything, who performed a solid half-hour set that included the Weddo's classic "Step In, Step Out" and several newer songs such as "The Hat Me Grandad Wore" (about Irish pub decor) and "You Remind Me" (about, as he put it, "Realising that you're old enough to be silverchair's dad").
For someone that had to cancel because of illness, Elvis Costello looked remarkably chipper. Both he and Nieve were suited up and looked more like uncles at a wedding than prime movers of the UK new wave. But any suggestion of dulled edges was lost when Nieve struck the opening chords to "Why Can't A Man Stand Alone?" and Costello opened his mouth. His voice was a revelation — much stronger and more versatile than I'd any idea of from the records — and for over two hours we were treated to one of the finest concerts imaginable.
This tour was ostensibly to promote Painted From Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and "What's Her Name Today?," "Toledo," "This House Is Empty Now" and the title track were exceptionally well performed.
As one would expect, there was a smattering of The Hits: the stripped down environment perfectly suited versions of "Love Field," "Accidents Will Happen" (with a brief nod in the coda to the Bacharach classic "24 Hours From Tulsa") and "Man Out Of Time."
However, his attempts at material like "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," "Girls Talk" and "Watching The Detectives" were even more astounding for their success. "God's Comic" was a highlight, as was Elvis's solo rendition of "Radio Sweetheart," "the first song I ever recorded," which segued nicely into the Van Morrison classic "Jackie Wilson Said."
But, for me at any rate, the highlight was the deadly, tense silence that fell upon the theatre when he began "I Want You" — the laughter at the end, as he slipped in lines from "I Say A Little Prayer," more from relief than at any musical joke. And yes, he did play "My Funny Valentine."
After two encores and several standing ovations Nieve and Costello removed the microphones to perform "Couldn't Call It Unexpected" without amplification, Costello standing at the front of the stage and belting it out to the stalls. To hear his voice, carried simply by the acoustics of the Festival Theatre, is an experience I haven't the skill to put into words. Costello was a class act and this was one of those concerts that the grandchildren will be hearing about.