Elvis Costello continued in his own contrary way in Liverpool last week. Ostensibly as part of the Liverpool European Capital of Culture, this show with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was one of only two shows Elvis, now primarily a Canadian resident, will perform in the U.K. this year. Never mind that his latest 'rock' album Momofuku has received some the best reviews of his career. He, it seems, intends spending most of his time recording a interview show for tv and fine tuning a score with the Miami Ballet. As someone who has gladly traveled to see him in the six years since he has played in Ireland ('when Hell freezes over' was his succinct response when I asked him at a autograph session when he may again appear in Dublin) the hop over the Irish sea was a blessedly easy task.
This has to have been one of the most enjoyable concerts I've seen Elvis perform. It was a splendid mix of the entertaining and the challenging. Continuously engaging, it also served to show an artist content with his ability, in splendid voice and confident in his intentions to explore it's limitations. That some of those efforts didn't work made the majority that did all the more thrilling.
None of the pieces were, of course, entirely knew to me. Having been listening to recordings of the Il Sogno shows he has been doing for the last few years it would be up to this Orchestra's take on them to make them fresh. This they did, in spades. 'Green Shirt' was an especial highlight, the strings being particularly vibrant. Watching The Detectives was similarly refreshed, just about improving on the performance I saw him do with Metropole Orkest in Holland in '06. If anything, the relative lack of rehearsal served to give an edge to the proceedings, requiring a very concentrated effort by all concerned.
The conceit behind including the Secret Songs (from a Hans Christen Anderson opera Elvis wrote in 2005) was audacious in the extreme. The fact that it has drawn some hostile reactions from fans shows Elvis anticipated and probably delights in getting that effect. Having been lucky enough to see, in Copenhagen, the workshop versions of these songs back in '05, it was a delight to see them finally getting the full orchestral treatment. How Deep Is The Red and She Handed Me A Mirror are still as achingly beautiful. He Has Forgotten Me Completely was less successful. It still shows it's origin as a plot device and will only ever work when delivered within a drama by a more competent stage performer. By the third performance in Denmark Elvis had just about the right pitch for the the line 'Though your voice is so endearing and so tender, you have confused the gender'; it was lacking last week. Try as she might Gisela Stille (depicting Anderson deity Jenny Lind; still as stunning as she was in '05) just couldn't save it. It was, for me, the evening's highlight.
The inclusion of them indicates that the 'Songs are still an ongoing project. Elvis's online journal refers to them being from an 'unfinished work' suggesting he still has hopes for a proper production of the show, as opposed to the atrocity that was the supposedly 'full production' that was presented in Copenhagen last year. Great. The songs are there — it just needs a more capable hand at adding in the dialogue and all the other requirements of stage drama.
The casual and understated way Ms Stille was presented last week was puzzling. Perhaps Elvis decided that to be more detailed in his comments would be tiresome. It would be more effective to merely get on with the performances. It worked. That it irked some people is all the more satisfying. To not expect something as provocative from Elvis is to show a lack of awareness of his basic technique.
The sold out Philharmonic Hall was in raptures by the end of the night, giving Elvis numerous standing ovations. He bantered with the audience, referring to the part of his childhood spent by the Mersey. He expressed a hope that the 'Culture' year would be of benefit but didn't argue with an doubting audience member.
In short, this was a show by an artist on the top of his form — it bodes well for anything else he should choose to approach with such vigour.