Elvis Costello has come a long way since the days when he sang his heart out as a knock-kneed punk in an ill-fitting suit and big glasses. After collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet and, more recently, Burt Bacharach, some feared that one of our finest singer-songwriters was destined to spend his mature years snuggled deep in the easy-listening category. And what was he doing in that Spiceworld movie?
But, promoting his latest Best Of package at the Palace, the crooner of domestic crisis silenced any dissenters with an energetic performance that lasted more than two and a half hours. From the moment he ran on stage and strummed his way through the fury of "Alibi Factory" to the closing "Favourite Hour" (which he sang without a microphone to a spellbound audience), Costello exhibited all the theatricality of a true entertainer.
By his side was the added Attraction of Steve Nieve, his long-time keyboardist. When not whacking the keys with lunatic conviction, Nieve twiddled the knobs on a magical music box that came up with drums, a bass-line and atmospheric soundscapes.
Together they hurled themselves through Costello's back-catalogue of darkly comic vignettes and songs of emotional protest. A tender "Talking in the Dark" was followed by a successful new Nieve arrangement of "Temptation." A sing-along "Radio Sweetheart" gave way to the raw-nerve sentiments of "Alison." And new compositions suggested that the balladeer of heartbreak and injustice hasn't lost his edge.
Costello may now have to stand on his toes to hit the high notes, but he still gets there. "I Want You" found every heart in the house. He's also a master of microphone technique: a majestic version of "Shipbuilding" — the best song to come out of the Thatcher years — had him singing a full 10 yards from the microphone, to haunting effect.
Now and then, however, Nieve's box of tricks got the better of him. "Green Shirt" suffered from what sounded like some weird psychedelic accompaniment, and the long-awaited "Oliver's Army" was a little lacklustre.
But there were pulsing versions of "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Clubland," and later Costello swapped his acoustic for a chunky lime-green Gibson for a boisterous "Watching the Detectives." Nieve repeatedly slammed the piano lid, broke it, and then threw it over his shoulder as the song ended. So they haven't forgotten how to rock 'n' roll after all.