When a pop review mentions a sense of impending mortality, it usually means the singer is knocking on a bit. At Elvis Costello's London show — during the course of which the UK government announced its plans for a ban on large gatherings — the shadow of an ending was both literal and unavoidable. Introducing his cover of George Jones's "Good Year for the Roses," 65-year-old Costello addressed his audience: "We're all gonna be all right, if we do the right thing. Or maybe we're not. But our time has to come."
A degree of fear was evident in the number of empty seats at what was, apparently, a sold-out show — not enough to make it feel sparsely populated, by any means, but enough to be noticeable. The subdued atmosphere meant the singer had to work hard. Despite his musings on the spectre of death, he spent most of the show combining the roles of carnival barker, rabble rouser and stand-up comedian, the bitterness of so many of his songs swapped for sugar.
It wasn't surprising, then, that the show took a while to warm up. But it wasn't all the fault of the virus. The high ceiling of the Apollo meant the sound boomed around, and the rockier the song, the less distinct it became: Costello classics such as "Accidents Will Happen" and "Less Than Zero" became a bit of a mulch. It was all much clearer when the rock was set aside and the band — the Attractions, but with Davey Faragher replacing Bruce Thomas on bass — stretched their legs into other styles, not just the country of the Jones cover, but a pair of songs from Costello's as-yet-unperformed musical A Face in the Crowd, or "Alison," a delicate ballad from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True.
The other issue was Costello's voice. Always a bit of an acquired taste, it appears to have aged in reverse. Where most singers lose their higher registers as they get older, Costello's seems to have strengthened; he was hitting and sustaining astounding high notes, rising effortlessly into falsetto. A snatch of "The Look of Love," introducing his own Burt Bacharach collaboration, "Photographs Can Lie," made one wish for more of Costello the lounge singer. But just as the rockiness of the band was hampered by the boom of the room, so Costello's voice was pulled short by the wordiness of some of his early songs, where the need to deliver dense screeds of lyrics meant his voice didn't always find the melody.
Still, over the course of two hours, Costello never bored: his omnivorous musical appetite meant that if you didn't like one style, there'd be another one along in a minute, and his catalogue is now so deep that you were never more than five minutes away from a classic. By a closing run that included "Pump It Up" and his sole UK No 1, "Oliver's Army," the crowd were finally on their feet, and Costello's hard work had been rewarded. It was a trouper's performance, and he deserved the ovation.