I don’t know if Elvis Costello wants to be treated like a Dean Martin or a Frank Sinatra, and perhaps this question is irrelevant as long as his audience insists on treating him like one. Whatever, he didn’t appear to object to the uncritically delirious response the audience gave him on Saturday night, the polite pattering of applause as each song was recognised, the constant baying for the oldest, most sugary songs in his repertoire, like Alison (which baying, I am afraid to say, he eventually gave into).
This is, of course, the first large scale tour Elvis has made without The Attractions, and the novelty of seeing the man himself, alone on stage, free from all the over-elaborate arrangements with which his band have been smothering him of late, certainly took a long time to wear off. (And for most of the audience, who seemed to enjoy the concert unreservedly, it obviously never wore off). The beauty and strength of such songs as The Only Flame became apparent for the first time in Elvis’s simple and uncluttered performances of them. And it was more obvious than ever that the man is blessed with an extraordinary voice, technically good and, more importantly, unparalleled, for its subtle expressiveness and soul, in the contemporary scene
Eventually, however, the weaknesses of Costello as a solo performer start to emerge. First of all, his guitar playing has never been more than basic, and his skills at the keyboard are rudimentary, to say the least. I’d be the last person to place musical virtuosity high on a list of desirable qualities in a rock musician, but the unrelieved strumming did begin to get monotonous after a while.
A more serious complaint, though, is about the sameness of style with which he performed all his songs. With a very few exceptions like Worthless Thing and New Amsterdam, every song from every stage of his recording career, and the new songs too, tended to merge towards a slow, melancholy, vaguely countried norm. So everything from Luxembourg to Shipbuilding to The World and his Wife ended up sounding like Good Year for the Roses. There is nothing wrong with that kind of song in itself, of course, but a set consisting solely of songs of that type does leave a final impression of pacelessness, and even monotony. Some variation of tempo and mood would do a lot to make the set more interesting.
During one of his generous encores, Elvis was joined on stage by “support artiste” T-Bone Burnett who had earlier given us some excellent satirical songs and some first-class buffoonery. The duet sarcastically announced as the “Caleb Brothers Reunion Tour”, played several country/sixties standards in a lighthearted kind of way. Elvis was even seen to smile once or twice. Without suggesting that this kind of thing is in any way the future of rock ‘n’ roll, or that it is any more “worthwhile” than what Elvis did by himself, I do think that Costello should push himself a little more in that direction. Lately he seems to have been taking himself rather too seriously, and though he does the world of heartbreak routine very well. I would prefer him to get a bit happier just occasionally.