There’s an argument to be made for including Elvis Costello in the same elevated company as someone like Bowie when it comes to consistency and stylistic (Kojak) variety. Since his breakthrough in 1977 – a momentous year, which also birthed the world’s greatest rock n’ roll magazine - he has veered all over the musical map, like a drunk trying to find the bathroom. From new wave to New Orleans, chamber music to country, blues to ballet, you name it, he’s taken a shot at it. What’s remarkable is how often he’s hit the target. He’s always good value live too.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats, the performance will begin in a few minutes, and no drinks are allowed in the auditorium.” Hot Press and his loyal assistant, Mr White, do a bit of speed glugging, and swiftly find our chairs. No sign of our man for another twenty minutes, of course. When Costello does take the stage, looking fit and well, the Imposters launch into ‘Wonder Woman’ from the brilliant 2006 collaboration with the late Allen Toussaint, The River In Reverse. We’re seated not just up in the gods, but over to the side, so we have to lean over the balcony to see, and the sound is a bit dodgy – the voice is too loud, the band, especially the guitar, too quiet…
“Hang on!”, says everybody, “You got in for nothing, what are you complaining about?” That’s a fair point, and the Bord Gáis Theatre is a fine house, but these seats were odd, why are they even there? No matter, it’s the luck of the draw, you can’t win them all. Things get a lot better as the night goes on.
‘Girls Talk’ – Elvis prowling the stage and quoting Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ – and ‘King Horse’ pass by pleasantly but things really kick off with a reimagined run at ‘Tears Before Bedtime’ from 82’s beloved baroque belter, Imperial Bedroom. “Are you ready to go down deep?” Costello asks the room before they slow down the original’s bright bounce to a stately deep soul pace that reminds one of The Persuaders or bits of Isaac Hayes. He should cut it on a 7” straight away. ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ still sounds spiky, although the guitar riff is lost where we are, I know there’s added wah-wah as I can see him work the pedal, but It’s only faintly audible, although we can hear the Hendrixy fretting in the following ‘come the MEANTIMES’, recorded with The Roots in 2013, so that’s my grumbling finished with, and there’s a nice almost industrial opening to ‘Green Shirt’.
Elvis is green lit from below for a heavily noir/dub version of ‘Watching The Detectives’ as he knocks out an atonal solo on his battered Jazzmaster, reminiscing as the song finishes about performing it in The Stella in Rathmines a long, long time ago. He takes the guitar off and lets the marvellous Steve Nieve lead the way on piano for recent torch number ‘You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way’ – a song written from the point of view of an older woman experiencing the attentions of a younger man - name another song writer who could attempt that scenario and not embarrass themselves completely. The rich vibrato in Costello’s voice, sung into an antique style radio mike, the kind of thing you might see in front of Bing Crosby in an old photo, is heartbreakingly convincing.
‘Good Year For The Roses’ has a lot of the country taken out of it, slowed down even further from the George Jones original. The brooding bass line brings it closer to the Springsteen of ‘Stolen Car’ than anything else – Costello has made a similar connection before, having once tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Jones to record Springsteen’s ‘Brilliant Disguise’. This version brings the hurt in the lyric out even further. Put it on the B-side of that ‘Tears Before Bedtime’ single. Nieve’s piano emphasises The Band – ‘Unfaithful Servant’, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ - in ‘Deep, Dark, Truthful Mirror’, the best thing from 1989’s patchy Spike. It was Toussaint who played piano on the original, ingraining it with some authentic southern soul, which Costello’s voice, buoyed up by the joyous backing vocals of Briana Lee and Kitten Kuroi, effortlessly carries forward.
A busked Bo Diddley-ey version of the other Elvis’ ‘His Latest Flame’ gives way to a trashed up go at ‘Clubland’, over-illuminated by spotlights aimed, it seems, directly at the critics section. I’ll never get those contact lenses out now. We get ‘Beyond Belief’ and a Dylanish ‘Waiting For The End Of The World’ before one of his great masterpieces, ‘I Want You’, levels the room. The music borrows from the similarly titled Beatles slab ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy), Ray Charles – the lryics of ‘I Believe To My Soul’ are quoted as well, and even Pink Floyd as the backing vocal go a bit ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ behind the guitar solo. The feeling has altered from the barely restrained violence inherent in the original to one of frustrated, almost impotent, regret. If anything, it’s even better than the record.
After a brief break, it’s just Elvis, Briana and Kitten on a gorgeous close harmony reading of ‘Alison’. The night could have stopped here and everyone would have gone home happy, but this encore did not seem to want to end. The threesome moved to the piano for ‘There Won’t Be Anymore’, which I’m guessing he got from Charlie Rich, and a gospeled up ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’. It’s Steve and Elvis for ‘Shot With His Own Gun’ and ‘Accidents Will Happen’, as more serious/borderline obsessive fans will remember them from the hard-to-find Costello & Nieve live album. Nieve is an incredible musician, Costello is blessed to have run in to him all those years ago, and he proves it again on Charles Aznavour’s ‘She’.
EC refers to Gordon Lightfoot in his introduction to a slowed down ‘Oliver’s Army’. I’m speculating again, but I’d say this is a throwing-up-the-hands acknowledgement of the more-than-slight melodic similarity to ‘If You Could Read My Mind’, not that it matters. Nieve’s ‘Dancing Queen’ keyboard lines are still there too. His electric piano on a beautiful ‘Shipbuilding’ perfectly compliments his boss’ voice, leaving a lump in every throat in the house. The chorus of ‘American Gangster Time’ – “it’s a drag, saluting the starry rag, I’d rather go blind, for speaking my mind” is cleverly answered by the never-more-pertinent question ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding’, including a snippet of ‘Sleep Of The Just’. The crowd are up now, and the band keep it going with ‘Everyday I Write The Book’ – Costello introduces the band: Steve Nieve surrounded with more keyboards than Walton’s moving sale, the rhythmic machine of Davey Faragher on bass, and the mighty metronome, Pete Thomas, on drums. Lee and Kuroi’s vocals go from full ‘Gimme Shelter’ howling to a swing at Jean Knight’s ‘Mr Big Stuff’, and this exceptional band finish out with ‘Pump It Up/Subterranean HomeSick Blues’. A tip of his fetching red homburg, and he’s gone.
Dylan fans will be familiar with that sinking feeling in their stomachs when Bob decides to "reinterpret" his classics. No such problems with Elvis Costello. There were rejigs tonight that beat out the originals, and that's saying something. Brilliant, as always, no matter where you’re sitting.