Elvis Costello cemented his reputation with his first five albums that channelled the energy of the punk era into classic songwriting. Since then, he has experimented with genres from country to classical, collaborated with heroes such as Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, dabbled with a beard and even picked up an OBE this month. However, this barnstorming show finds him back where he was before any of it started. "I used to walk past this place on my way to school, but never did pluck up the courage to venture in," the 65-year old says, pausing for the punchline. "It was a circus then, so I wouldn't have been good for health and safety."
So begins a two hour, 26-song masterclass, with a setlist that spans much of his back catalogue and in which stone cold classics come along as regularly as buses. Perhaps his cancer scare in 2018 that resulted in cancelled tour dates has given him a jolt, but he seems to relish every second of this return to his teenage stomping ground, making a grand entrance with arms raised like a champion boxer. Costello usually plays seated venues now, but the standing stalls and boisterous crowd make for an electric atmosphere. There is, perhaps, another reason for the singer-songwriter's vintage form. He explains that his Liverpudlian mother, Lilian, is in the audience, which he hadn't expected. She has been very ill and he reveals that she could have died, so Costello pays tribute to the "extraordinary women at Arrowe Park hospital who did so much for her. I can't tell you how much it means that she's here tonight."
He subsequently sings country smash "Good Year for the Roses" with beautiful care, passion and precision. Costello's songwriting prowess means that his singing gets overlooked, but he is an extraordinarily versatile vocalist, whether rampaging through rockers such as "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" or bringing mesmeric melancholy to anti-war lament "Shipbuilding." An extended falsetto note during "Watch Your Step" is met with chants of "Elvis!" and two fabulous American soul/gospel backing singers — Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee — make some songs sound very different.
Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" is taken to church and "Watching the Detectives" gets an extended coda. The new "A Face in the Crowd" bodes well for his forthcoming Broadway musical, but by now, he's rifling through showstoppers like a pack of cards. "Green Shirt" pulsates electronically. "Party Girl" is aching and yearning, and he brings an exquisite vocal quiver to "Everyday I Write the Book." "Pump It Up" rampages furiously and "Alison" turns into a sing-song before a powerful anti-war double-whammy of "Oliver's Army" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" play in front of slogans such as "Don't join" and "Thou shall not kill." Costello thanks his band, the cheering audience and his watching mum, who's seen him at his best.