I went along to the Royal Albert Hall last Thursday prepared to attend the ritual self-destruction of one of rock's most potent forces. Not content with dabbling in country and western music on his last album Almost Blue, Elvis Costello had announced his intention of performing live with a full orchestra. Surely his experimentation had taken him one step too far.
But no. It was a triumphant concert which left a packed house baying for more long after the house lights had come up. By 10 o'clock, Costello had staked his claim to be more than a mere rock star. He is now a star — period.
The evening opened with a 45 minute set from the standard line-up of Elvis and the Attractions. As usual they rattled through a collection of old and new material at breakneck speed, proving once again just how versatile the guitar/bass/drums format can be. Pete Thomas seems to find melodies from his drum kit, Bruce Thomas promotes the bass guitar to lead status and in the Albert Hall's perfect acoustics, Steve Nieve's intricate keyboard work was a revelation. Costello himself was in fine voice, variously spitting out or savouring his lyrics as though tasting them for the first time. It was a full-blooded performance worthy of a hungry new band but given extra edge by the apprehension about what was to follow.
When the lights dimmed for the second half it was a tense audience which watched the immaculately attired ladies and gentlemen, of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra take their places behind the more familiar rock group hardware. As Costello took the stage the atmosphere resembled that of the Wimbledon Centre Court at the moment when the crowd's favourite serves on match point. But as the violins launched into a chilling new arrangement of "Shot With His Own Gun" the match was won.
The filmic "Watching the Detectives" found its true home in a setting straight out of a Hollywood gangster score. The contrast of luscious strings with the biting lyrics of "Alison" brought out the real menace of the song and the rich symphonic texture of Nick Lowe's anthem "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding" produced a climax worthy of Cecil B. de Mille.
This was neither a rock group with orchestral backing nor the hideous crime of orchestral rock. It was a wholly successful synthesis of the two apparently contradictory styles and Steve Nieve and the conductor Robert Kirby should be well pleased with their arrangements.
Throughout, Elvis Costello showed a healthy disregard for the sanctity of his recordings. Like Bob Dylan, he sees his songs as living things and constantly reworks them to discover new meanings. If the whole of Tin Pan Alley were wiped out Costello alone could keep pop music going. As a performer he is equally at home with new wave anguish, country sentimentality and big band crooning. And as a writer he explores an extraordinary range of moods and styles. If he decides to share the film of this magical evening with a wider audience, do try to see it. Such an expensive and ambitious project is unlikely to be repeated.