Singer-songwriters, one seems to forget, play their guitars in differing ways. No two are the same. Some, like Nanci Griffith, merrily and lightly pluck away. Elvis Costello brandishes his guitar like a young Turk, occasionally holding it aloft in defiance. Steve Earle, meanwhile, strums away at a mandolin. Earle has the contented appearance of a man who has become wedged into his lounge room chair. Emmylou Harris, in comparison, has all the poise of a Fifties matinee idol. And next to her, John Prine crouches over his acoustic guitar, looking as if his survival depends on it.
Last Thursday at the Hammersmith Apollo, against the backdrop of the most sombre of causes, this powerful quintet politely retell their own war stories. "I like to write a love song every once in a while," smiles Earle. "It keeps down that quotient of my fanbase that has big beards." He eases himself into "Valentine's Day," a mournful ballad of ignored love.
Land mine clearing — indeed, all charity work — is undoubtedly a noble cause. Some benefit shows, however, use the bombastic coordination of a military campaign, flying in acts to perform in front of crowds of 60,000. Live Aid in 1985, and the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute at Wembley stadium are cases in point.
This concert provides a more fulfilling blueprint for such shows. Griffith, Costello, Earle, Harris and Prine are songwriters who have been lauded for reinventing country music, in part, through offering political instruction to their usually conservative audiences. But at heart, they remain old-fashioned country romantics: rarely allowing their politics to get in the way of quixotic love songs.
Shortly before an intermission, Bobby Muller, the co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, makes a speech on the charity's behalf. "Land mines," he says, simply, "are the single biggest employer of people in Afghanistan. The UN land mine clearing campaign employs more locals than any other industry in that country." It's a sobering thought, and one at odds with the jingoism of some post-11 September tributes.
Harris announces she will auction off two scarves during the interval. Both are eventually sold for £8,000.
While most of the songwriters prefer to play faithful renditions of their earlier material — Griffith does a resoundingly open-hearted version of "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" and Earle offers a typically languid version of "Fort Worth Blues" — Prine offers a welcome moment of humour. "I was once asked by Billy Bob Thornton to star in a film," he tells the audience. "And since I'm already such an accomplished actor, I thought I'd give it a go. The result was so great they haven't released it in four years."
He rambles into a song written for the aborted movie, "In Spite of Ourselves" — a duet he later recorded with Iris DeMent: "She don't like her eggs all runny / She thinks crossin' her legs is funny / She looks down her nose at money / She gets it on like the Easter Bunny / She's my baby I'm her honey / I'm never gonna let her go."
The most uncomfortable moment of the evening, surprisingly, is provided by Elvis Costello singing "Alibi," a track from his forthcoming When I Was Cruel album. On record, the song remains grounded beneath a plodding bass line but stripped of its instrumentation, Costello breathes a rare poignancy into the lyrics.
"There are soldiers who will kill but refuse to die / If I've done something wrong there's no 'ifs and buts' / 'Cos I love just as much as I hate your guts." In tonight's context, "Alibi" is a prickly condemnation of war, and Costello's brave performance receives a muted, if somewhat confused, ripple of applause.
Costello's denunciation of politicians who wage war out of wounded pride or malice and with ulterior motives grates with the audience, who gasp quietly. It's a defining moment, this open and honest criticism of the current allied campaign.
As such it shows an unexpected and fresh renewal in Costello's lyrical talents. Even his accompanists look spellbound.