Elvis Costello remains the one major British star from the post-Punk era who has yet to put a foot wrong. This year his status was increased by yet a few more notches as he predictably ignored all prevailing trends, funky or electronic, and happily followed his own idiosyncratic path. The results, of course, were two of the great albums of the past 12 months — first Trust, with its rousing mixture of beat ballads, anguish and emotion, and then Almost Blue, in which the same direct approach and emotional intensity was daringly applied to a collection of country favourites.
Those rock enthusiasts who thought that all country styles had to be cloying or bland may have been forced to rethink their attitudes, as country received its most unexpected boost since the Byrds introduced their Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
Back at the Rainbow for yet another of the seasonal triumph shows, Costello moved easily between his two very different latest recordings, but favoured his own songs. He'll be appearing at the RAH on January 7th with a full orchestra backing him, so will presumably calm down and play more slow country songs then. Last night he rattled non-stop through a series of fast songs like "Clubland," almost as if he was letting his band off the leash, before he announced "the new single," and presented his intense re-interpretation of "Sweet Dreams."
Costello could handle such country material, or crooning Forties ballads if he so wished, because his style is so steeped in the popular music of the last 50 years, not just 25 years of rock 'n' roll.
Last night proved that the country excursion was no gimmick and that such songs fit easily into his standard set, but even so this was still a long way from being the best show he's given.
Perhaps, as a reaction to Nashville, his old favourites — and some brand new songs — were taken at a break-neck speed that destroyed some of their emotional impact. "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?" was tackled even faster than on the country album, while old favourites like "High Fidelity" were almost thrown away. But at least he slowed down for a superb version of Gram Parsons' "I'm Your Toy."