They have a surprising amount in common, these two ageing practitioners of pop 'n' roll: designer specs, almost-acceptable amounts of facial hair, a pronounced tendency to crony. (Cronying: The compulsive need to collaborate with one's slightly more illustrious peers.) Oh, and both Dave Stewart and Elvis Costello happen to be making one-off appearances at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London this week. The parallels are almost eerie.
It's easy to knock Dave Stewart, but then why make life hard for yourself? This renaissance middle man — a globe-trotting multi-millionaire who brings together the worlds of Bootsy Collins and Damien Hirst — has made a huge mistake by placing himself in the spotlight and I think he knows it. True, every so often he strides forward, manfully to unleash a screaming guitar solo on his silver Stratocaster, but he quickly shuffles back to his microphone with a faintly guilty look on his face.
Perhaps, it wouldn't be bad if the ex-Eurythmic's solo songs weren't lifted hook, line and middle eight from the songbooks of his friend, David Bowie. (The second song is actually Bowie's "Changes.") For all the neurasthenic self-preoccupation of his lyrics, there's precious little sense of Stewart in this carefully modulated, competently funky music. The man wears a mean suit, but he has nothing to say to anyone who fails to understand that it's the epitome of cool to have ten television sets and three over-emotional black female singers on-stage. The Eighties, it would seem, die hard. Few people, moreover, could get away with writing songs as bad as "Heart of Stone" or "Tragedy Street" if they hadn't been the shadowy presence behind Annie Lennox for all those years.
I've often thought Elvis Costello would be the King of Rock 'n' Roll if he ever learned to sing properly. Once again it's his vocal deficiencies which let him down on-stage — deficiencies only too evident from his opening solo version of "Girls Talk," which had him apologising almost before he'd begun.
The hoarseness of the voice must have been doubly mortifying to Costello himself, given that this one-off show consisted almost exclusively on his new Kojak Variety album, versions of songs originally performed by such peerless singers as James Carr and the Louvin Brothers. If he got away with it on Little Richard's "Bama Lama Loo," and on such old country-rock failsafes as "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," the more delicate offerings were invariably throttled by his desperate screaming and strained vibrato. I'd particularly been looking forward to Randy Newman's spine-tingling "I've Been Wrong Before" and to the Supremes obscurity "Remove This Doubt," both of which sound just dandy on Kojak Variety, but I found myself wincing at their dismemberment.
For all the consolations — the subtle arpeggios of Attractions keyboard man Steve Naive, the thrilling six-string duels between former Elvis (Presley) guitarist James Burton and one-time Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot — the Empire show highlighted the problems of being simultaneously a star and a fan. It's admirable that Costello wants to share his enthusiasms with the world. Occasionally he should stop to ask himself whether he's qualified to do so.