A calm, reasonable Elvis Costello is as much use as a set of metric spanners to a Morris 1000, so rest assured that the stocky balladeer is in acerbic form. His new show at the London Palladium is a marathon affair featuring just him, a couple of guitars and a piano (apart from a brief appearance by Nick Lowe in the encores), and also finds El-boy developing rapidly as a stand-up comic. His TV-host delivery and caustic asides about the Sun suggest a novel fusion of Eric Morecambe and Ben Elton.
The jokes are just as well, since a performance which duplicated the compressed spleen of the recent Spike long-player would be a harrowing affair. The record portrayed Costello so comprehensively as an embittered recluse who pours vitriol over his Shredded Wheat that its sluggish chart showing is not to be wondered at.
Elvis' problem (he might not see it this way) has frequently been to find music resonant and memorable enough to lift and illuminate his words. Time and again, he's banged out albums groaning with cunning punning and viciously barbed observation, coupled with music which poured from the speakers like cement.
On Spike, he spread the load via a swarm of styles, from trad Irish to brass band and loose-jointed funk. Still, nothing could ever sweeten the blackness and disgust of songs like "Chewing Gum," "Let Him Dangle" and "Tramp The Dirt Down."
His development of a free-wheeling, music hall-like live performance appears to be Elvis's solution to the problems of the weight of his material, not to mention the sheer volume of his back catalogue. Cover versions, like ABBA's "Knowing Me, Knowing You," or The Beatles' "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," help to set his music in a wider context of pop-from-the-beginning. He's devised a tacky audience-participation routine to help him pick material. And the jokes help it all go down.
The show works well as a means of presenting Costello, the man and in 2½ hours he gets through a fair swathe of material. Solo piano readings of "Shipbuilding" and "Almost Blue" were highly effective, the chipped guitar rhythm of "Veronica" closely resembled something from the vaults of Buddy Holly, and the involved chords of "Baby Plays Around" gave El a few problems (he had to sit down to play it). "I Want You" was a sinister essay in sexual obsession. "Tramp The Dirt Down," wherein Elvis vomits up a litany of hate over Mrs. Thatcher's shoes, stood defiantly at the pinnacle of the set.
The obvious shortcoming of playing it this loose is that one man and a guitar has his limitations. The often crude performances began to grate over such a long performance, with "Clowntime Is Over" sounding especially approximate, while Elvis's extended preambles to the likes of "Pads, Paws And Claws" or "God's Comic" went on too long. By the time he reached the real conclusion, with a ferocious "Pump It Up"/"Subterranean Homesick Blues" played rap-style on electric guitar and beat-box, a large chunk of the audience had already gone home.
But Costello's is an awkward, bristly talent which never settles anywhere for long. That means nobody else can tell him how to do it, and guarantees that while his audience will never out-number Bon Jovi's, it will be with him for years. Is that what Elvis wants? Search me.