Elvis Costello is nothing if not ambitious. At the start of a month-long British tour, that will include a return to Hammersmith Palais on every Monday night in October, he treated the show with the break-neck gusto of a last night performance, even though his voice was giving him considerable trouble. He had to retire at one point for a brief rest, but still sang for nearly two and a half hours, frantically running songs into each other as he transformed the Palais into a mixture of folk club and sleazy It and B joint.
The folk theme was set by the support band, Pogue Mahone, a sort of youthful punk version of the Dubliners, who veered between Irish tunefulness and mania, with one member banging himself over the head with a tea tray. Costello's solo folk spot was far more compelling, as he accompanied himself on electric guitar for a chilling version of Richard Thompson's "The End Of The Rainbow," a bleak ballad that was followed by Costello's own bitterly ironic "Peace In Our Time."
These gentler, sensitive pieces came in the middle of a blitz of R and B that started with the new "Sour Milk-Cow Blues," ended with "Pump It Up," and included side-swipes at the likes of Culture Club — a comment on their new single was followed by "Worthless Thing," and then the Byrds' "So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star." This time round, his backing trio were augmented by just one saxophonist, and were almost defeated by the Palais acoustics. Downstairs, the sound was often swamped by Steve Nieve's keyboards and it seemed that every song was being cranked out at the same level.
Those going to Costello's future Palais shows are advised to listen from up on the balcony, near the mixing desk, from where he sounded as classy as ever.