We didn't know what to expect.
I was with a friend who had been present at an infamous 50-minute Elvis Costello gig nearly twenty years ago, which was evidently during the artist's "young and impetuous" phase (to steal his own phraseology). My colleague also stated that if Costello played too much of the "Bacharach nonsense," he would leave early. As it was, Costello did play a large proportion of his Bacharach collaborations. As well as three encores (which possibly lasted longer than the notorious concert in question).
My friend stayed. And will no doubt purchase Painted From Memory.
There could not have been many audience members that left the Capitol Theatre disappointed after this 27-song marathon-stretch from "Mr Revenge (less so) & Guilt (more so)" and Professor Piano. The standing ovations Costello & Nieve received prior to an unforgettable conclusion — a gut-wrenching, unplugged, in-yer-front-row's-face rendition of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" — were more than well and truly deserved. Costello crooned until his fragile voice was king hoarse, then returned three times with selections thoughtfully clenched from the darkest places of an impressive oeuvre. The audience itself had very few songs left to request by the end of a packed programme.
And the duo were never going to touch "Pump It Up."
Costello and Nieve won over their audience with a professionalism that had little of the pretence, emotional coldness and studied cynicism that can sometimes be associated with many of the tired dinosaurs of rock. A setlist that more than amply covered a range of songs, styles and periods of Costello's musical progression from "Alison" to "God Give Me Strength" was more than assured to safely satisfy fans of all shapes, sizes and persuasions.
In the new material, which featured predominantly throughout the evening, Nieve frequently impressed. It was as if he was single-handedly taking responsibility for replacing a whole darn symphony orchestra and two remaining Attractions. While his fingers were running up and down the keys and creating a veritable tornado of sound, his gangly frame frenetically rocked back and forth on his piano-stool like a pipe organist from a B&W gothic horror film. Very rarely did he need to adjourn to his trusty synthesizer as he colourfully extracted myriads of moods, dynamics and textures from his grand piano. In "Such Unlikely Lovers" we almost heard violins.
Nieve's showy virtuosity, never distracted or detracted from Costello's effecting vocal delivery which, although strained and tenuous in the upper register (that the occasional pulling away from the microphone could not disguise), contained an emotional warmth and honesty that easily forgave the limitations of range. In "Toledo," free from the frills of backing radio sweethearts and lush Bacharachian instrumentation, the song's beautiful, buoyant melodies and subtle chord progressions were allowed to effect the listener in a rawer, purer state. It was the better for it.
The same could be said of the old classics, reworked by two musicians at the peak of their powers, presented with simple, sincere and uncluttered vitality. Uptempo numbers such as "(I Don't Want to go to) Chelsea" and "Watching the Detectives" provided upbeat relief amidst a set designed to have listeners hurling themselves from the balconies of despair, while slower, soulful and sultry renditions of "Temptation," "Everyday I Write the Book" and "Veronica" reinterpreted recognisable McCartneyesque tunes in a different, dimming light from their original, sugary recordings. "Radio Sweetheart" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" gave the audience the chance to add some backing vocals and chant choruses, while "God's Comic" allowed our bespeckled philosopher to muse about the afterlife and the divine standpoint on rock legends such as Elvis (the other one) and Frankie, as well as squeeze out the evening's rehearsed joke.
If the creator in question had heard the desperate longing in "I Want You" which steadily reached boiling point through the controlled intensity of Costello's feverish strumming and Nieve's volcanic crescendos subsiding into a passionate, fading plea of lust and anguish, He or She would certainly have come down off His or Her celestial waterbed and given the singer strength while banishing Andrew Lloyd Webber to the pits of a very bland hell.
The highlight was to come at the end. Without amplification, a tired Costello responded to the audience's genuine applause, admiration and appreciation by baring his soul and putting aside his microphone and carrying us away to the melodious, mellifluous and mighty strains of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," an underrated gem. Young and impetuous no more, a wiser, wearier but ultimately spirited and uplifting voice filled the Capitol to the stalls and surely stirred the most hardest of hearts.
I can't believe I'll never believe in Elvis Costello again.