As Father's Day gifts go, it would be hard to imagine a better present than the one offered by Elvis Costello to his dad: the perfect concert at the Festival Hall. Elvis dedicated his second number "Veronica" (the song about his paternal grandmother that he wrote with Paul McCartney) to his old man, the 83-year old former big band singer, who was in attendance, and then proceeded to demonstrate all that he had learned in the 50-odd years since they first sang together.
In recent years, since his unhappy performance at Glastonbury in 2005, Costello, long exiled in the States, has suggested that he had no real desire to play the UK, except on diversions like his Brodsky Quartet collaboration, but this looked and sounded like a change of heart. For two hours, with only a guitar (and, on a couple of tracks, Meltdown curator Richard Thompson) for accompaniment, he reminded everyone of the range and brilliance of his 35 years of songwriting, and the fully evolved soulfulness and attack of his voice.
Definitive, skeletal versions of "Alison" and "Good Year for the Roses" were sung as if his life depended on them. "Watching the Detectives" required fancy footwork on several guitar loops and carried all its homemade edge. There was a newish take on a song he claimed "to hate" – "Every Day I Write the Book," revived here because, he suggested, his friend Ron Sexsmith has finally taught him how to sing it – and a clutch of standout tracks from his forthcoming album including "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," about a cowboy singer down on his luck, and "Slow Drag with Josephine," "how rock 'n' roll used to sound in 1921", a ragtime tune that he sang sitting on the edge of the stage, with a whistle solo, and without an amp.
The whimsical interludes are reminders of Costello's understanding of his roots in music hall and cabaret traditions, but he hasn't lost his edge of righteous anger either. His vitriol is news that stays news. There was a wonderfully pointed version of "God's Comic," in which priestly hypocrisies seemed fresh minted, and a raucous "Shipbuilding," the Falklands-era complexities of which now foreshadow another defence review and another distant war. Perhaps Costello always sounds better under a Tory government, but on this form he seems capable of anything. The Meltdown invitation has led to a short UK tour this week; grab a ticket if you can and give him a proper prodigal welcome.