To some people Elvis Costello is just another name on the roster of fly-by-night popstars that come and go and leave maybe a couple of memorable songs in their wake. To a certain amount of followers, those who constitute the dedicated audience he's built up over the wars, he's the most important singer-songwriter of the post-1977 generation, and very possibly an artist at least the equal of Dylan, Bowie, or any other great you'd care to name.
Last Friday night's gig in Leisureland proved that Costello himself certainly has it in him to last as long as any of the big names I've just compared him with — and that he has not only the required staying power, but also the talent — and if you knew how rare true talent is, you'd put the word in italics too. The man can knock out great songs like most of us make cups of tea, and it's a gift he doesn't take lightly. Himself and his band, The Attractions, are also in the enviable position of not needing massive chart success — because through seven years of hard work, writing, recording and gigging they've ploughed out their own furrow in the music marketplace. Some think that the peak of Costello and the Attractions career came in 1979 when Armed Forces and "Oliver's Army" topped the charts. But the truth is that the man had not yet begun to write. Today, five years and as many albums later, Elvis Costello and his cohorts have built up an enormous repertoire of songs — a selection so extensive that even the longer than usual set they played in Leisureland couldn't accommodate all the favourites that people were constantly yelling for.
Costello's Irish tour definitely wasn't a "plug-the-new-album" tour. We were treated to some healthy dollops of new material from the Goodbye Cruel World L.P., starting off with the taut R. & B. riffing of "Sour Milk Cow Blues" which opened the set. But they fit in quite a lot of old stuff as well — going all the way back to 1977 for "Red Shoes," and stopping everywhere in between.
The first time one got the feeling that something a bit special was taking place, though, was when they played the latest single, "The Only Flame in Town." The vinyl version, some of you may recall, features Elvis Costello duetting with Daryl Hall in a boppy, accessible enough number — above average Costello alright, but not among his classics. The live version is something else altogether, because they dispense completely with the recorded arrangement, and slow the song down to the pace of a soul/blues ballad. The result had to be heard, or rather, felt to be believed. Daryl Hall? Who's "he"?
Most acts wait until the end of the night before they pull something like that — but "The Only Flame in Town" was the "fourth song of the set". Very few people can get away with this sort of thing, but Elvis Costello and the Attractions are among those who can.
Revising and extending old songs is a common enough Costello habit, and a healthy one at that. It keeps material fresh and alive. One of his oldest songs, "Alison" was given this sort of treatment — furnished with some new lyrics, plus a quote from an old Jackson Five number and an Otis Redding type fade. The much neglected "King Horse," from 1980, benefited from a similar treatment: some new lyrics, some new kicks in the arrangement, and a bass guitar intro shamelessly filched from the Temptations, "Papa was a Rolling Stone."
Costello's other habit of cheekily quoting, quite openly, other people's tunes (rather than surreptitiously ripping them off) means that his gigs are, in a way, a crash course in pop music history. Cover versions were in abundance too — most especially their faithful reading of the other Elvis' "Little Sister," and the medley of 50's hits they laid on for the encore. The little man with the glasses and the guitar wailed his way through Little Richard's "Slipping and Sliding" and Carl Perkins' "Slow Down" as though posessed by the ghost of his fellow Liverpudlian, a certain Mr. Lennon.
The musical secret weapon came in the form of Gary Barnacle, who fleshed out the arrangements on sax, and on "Shipbuilding," flute.
Ah, "Shipbuilding." I think a lot of people would have come to Leisureland and paid six quid just to see them do that number. Because on Friday night they played the definitive version of the song Costello and Clive Longer wrote for Robert Wyatt. Barnacle's silvery flute solo and Costello's own impassioned singing took the song far beyond either of the recorded versions.
Other pop stars, if you like, come and go like ships in the night. Costello and the Attractions are building their own ship, not painted up too brightly, but strong and sturdy without question. They'll be sailing along for quite some time yet.