"Welcome to the first night of the Proms," quipped Elvis Costello at the beginning of his three-day stay at London's Royal Albert Hall. The celebrations were, however, restrained, the whoops and cries that customarily greet big shows replaced by polite applause and the odd heckler. The seats on the main floor had been removed leaving it free for the masses to dance, but it was clear that this audience's pogo-ing days were long gone.
The subdued mood was a puzzle. This was, after all, meant to be a triumphant homecoming after a successful American tour. More potently, it marked Costello's re-unification with his old band, the Attractions, after an eight-year break during which the artistically restless singer/songwriter sought to expand and develop beyond the limitations of their bass, drums and keyboard line-up. Their resurrection for Costello's recent Brutal Youth album had been greeted with appropriately revivalist fervour. The real Elvis, the faithful declared, was back.
And like this year's album, this year's show is less about growth than reverting to the barbed, skeletal rock that back in the late Seventies first launched a fledgling Costello. As if to emphasise the point, the paunch, beard and wire specs of recent years have been shed in favour of an earlier trademark, the Buddy Holly horn-rims.
The bulk of the sprawling set — two hours and 20 minutes long — shuttled between Brutal Youth and his first two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, in a way that eradicates the 15 years between them. If not exactly a greatest hits package — given his back catalogue, Costello could play a week at the Albert Hall without repeating himself — the show came perilously close at times to being an exercise in nostalgia.
Taken at breakneck punk-era speed, the opening trio of "No Action," "The Beat" and "Waiting for the End of the World" was marred by a sound quality that also seemed to have been taken from 1977. Things didn't settle until the acoustic "London's Brilliant Parade," one of the best of the new songs. Introduced as "all about this crazy old town, this beautiful place we live in," its chiming melody and ironic title conceal a scabrous attack on the capital's ugly blend of the shoddy, the sordid and the desperate. These days, Costello lives in Dublin.
The slower, more acoustic numbers offered some of the night's best moments. A re-arranged "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" became a savage exercise in introspection. A guitar-less "Shipbuilding" was a reminder that below the vitriolic surface often lies a seam of warm compassion. Inspired by the Falklands War, it remains a dazzling example of political songwriting.
The fast stuff, particularly the dense Brutal Youth material, was more problematic. For all that they are held up as taut, nimble combo, the Attractions often proved ungainly. Bassist Bruce Thomas remains formidable, but the ceaseless flurries of drummer Pete Thomas (no relation) are often unnecessary clutter, while keyboardist Steve Nieve's classically derived descants are applied remorselessly to every number. The result was a lack of light and shade, with each song blurring into the next.
These days, too, the physical manifestation of Costello's emotion is not available. Now nearing 40, he is too wise to imitate the brattish anger of his youth, and is content to wring the neck of his Fender, or roll his eyes behind his horn-rims while his hands conduct an elaborate emotional semaphore.
A moving version of the mournful "Favourite Hour," accompanied by Nieve on the Albert Hall's churchy house organ, shows Costello capable of moving smoothly on to cabaret when he tires of rock 'n' roll, something he once described as "like running round in your underpants."
He's evidently not ready to put aside his plectrum just yet, though. The run-in to several encores saw him scrubbing out a demented solo for "My Science Fiction Twin" and producing furious versions of such vintage material as "Watching The Detectives," "You Belong To Me," and "Radio, Radio," which saw the audience finally awake from its slumber. One bloke even broke into a modest pogo.
The finale playfully segued "Alison" into Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of my Tears" and "Tears of a Clown" and back into Costello's "Clowntime Is Over" before closing on "Peace, Love and Understanding." The faithful had their reward, but, doubtless, Costello is already on another chapter.