The last time Elvis Costello played Ireland at the Macroom Festival bottles flew and he launched into the cautionary "Watch Your Step" with appropriately venomous intent. Last Wednesday at the National Stadium after the same song a much more affable Elvis signed an autograph on a copybook thrust up from the mass milling around the stage area. The instance signified the difference between the two performances. He may still unchain his melodies like a righteous brother and never let his shades down but no longer embattled Costello winked kindly from behind them.
The wintry circumstances helped. Somehow the cold and the consequent commitment on both the audience and the act's part to arrive made it a more intimate communal affair and Costello, a bowtied and baggy-trousered philanthropist responded by offering 31 songs from his repertoire, surely an Irish concert record.
Inevitably, his voice felt the strain and cracked on the encore of his latest hit "A Good Year For The Roses." Inevitably too, the attention could wander under such a fusilade of material but when he finished, only the most scurvy of critics could deny the character and conscience of Costello.
Conscience because Costello, probably from his Irish-Liverpudlian background, has a special sense of sin and salvation and the ability to anatomise relationships with rare sensitivity.
Everyone will choose her own favourites from such an extended performance but my preference was a stretch in the middle of the concert beginning with "Success" from his latest album Almost Blue then following with "Watch Your Step," a rollicking version of "Tonight the Bottle Let me Down," "New Lace Sleeves," "Shabby Doll" and "Almost Blue." That last song though with the same title as his last album wasn't included on it and turned out to be a breathtaking ballad — in fact closer to Cole Porter and such classic songwriters than country music.
Occasionally the sound could be rough, particularly on the up-tempo numbers but Costello has always preferred to keep close to the hard-edged style of club rock and roll. His band, The Attractions — keyboard Steve Naeve and the dauntless Thomases, Bruce on bass and Pete on drums — gave the support expected through their long association, particularly on the final encores, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," "Oliver's Army," "What's so Funny About Peace Love and Understanding," the Nick Lowe song he has taken for his own.
After five years Costello no longer seems quite the angry, bitter performer of his earlier reputation. He has become a truly durable professional, a man whose material could be an anthology of popular music of the last thirty years, although he has reworked his inspirations to create a tauter less sentimental and contemporary relevance.
After this concert it's easy to see how enduring a figure Costello has become. Although his form of rock doesn't seem so fashionable these days, Costello's sheer application and continued prolific output ensures that he will not lose his position.
Last Wednesday's concert showed that Costello has the realism and commitment to last through the recession. He is truly a good artist and a good man for these hard