With an autobiography rather than a new album to promote, Elvis Costello was all talk on his latest tour. Acknowledging the showbiz heritage of his chosen venue, there was an element of “I say I say I say” to his quickfire patter, all bad jokes and tall tales.
In between anecdotes he found a fresh way to present one of rock’s most wide-ranging back catalogues. Leaving behind the spinning wheel of song titles that he has operated in recent years, he stood alone and stripped his music to the bare bones.
It meant he could skip quickly from old favourites such as "Accidents Will Happen" and "Oliver’s Army" to brand new material including "A Face in the Crowd," which he suggested would be part of a new musical. However, the volume was low and heavier songs such as "Watching the Detectives" felt lacking, rather than newly invigorated, by the restrictive setup. A shift to the piano meant that "Shipbuilding" was delivered with far more feeling.
There was great warmth in his reminiscences of his musician father and grandfather, without whom it might not have occurred to him to embark on a singing career. "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," from 2010, colourfully described the touring life of old. A giant retro television showed vintage footage, and Costello himself, when he jumped inside to perform "Alison" and "Pump It Up."
When sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of American roots band Larkin Poe joined him for a lengthy encore, their mandolin and slide guitar added where Costello had taken away. He’s better with a band, even this small impromptu one. But it was his voice that dominated, singing and talking, and it was well worth hearing.