"How you doing?" Elvis Costello asked a packed Hammersmith Apollo, adding, "I know I say that every night but it seems more poignant than ever, now that you've all risked life and limb to come out." Coming towards the close of a rapturously received British tour, the 65-year-old singer-songwriter expressed genuine surprise and pleasure that the show had been allowed to go on in the midst of the coronavirus emergency. With just a smattering of empty seats indicating the impact of self-isolation nervousness in the sold out 3,500-capacity venue, Costello promised an evening of "post-Brexit, pre-virus blues." With a gap-toothed grin, he defiantly declared "When we started this tour, little did we know we were on the edge of doom, so let's just play before they shut us down!" Then he and his long serving band delivered an absolutely riotous blast of splenetic songcraft and furiously exuberant musicianship.
Once dubbed the angriest man in pop, Costello has matured into something of a revered elder musical statesman. "Here's one I wrote with Burt Bacharach," he noted, introducing the luscious ballad "Photographs Can Lie," adding "Yeah, I like the way that sounds too," with mock smugness. He made the same quip introducing "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," a luxuriously melodic showtune composed with Carole King. Both were taken from his 30th studio album Look Now, which beat Barbra Streisand, John Legend and Michael Bublé to a Grammy Award this year in the questionable category of Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. "Which, you will hear on most of the songs this evening, is the ideal resting place for Elvis Costello and the Imposters."
He was joking, of course. There are not many artists in popular music with a more wide-ranging, eclectic and challenging musical and lyrical oeuvre than Costello, whose sprawling set encompassed the spiky new wave reggae of "Watching the Detectives," sinister electro pulse of "Green Shirt," maudlin country balladry of "Good Year For the Roses" and smooth soul of "Everyday I Write the Book." "It's all horse races and beauty contests," he noted dismissively of his recognition by the American Recording Academy. Even at his venerable age, and despite taking a knee to accept an OBE from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace in February, there remains a sharp spirit of counter-culture dissidence from the old punk. Respectability has not smoothed his edges.
For such a master musician, he still performs with a quality of almost un-finessed energy and ebullience. The Imposters are essentially his original group The Attractions by another name, with a different bassist (Davey Faragher, sideman for 19 years) and added female backing vocalists. They stir up a din and a clatter as they radically rearrange material on the spot. It can be a source of both pleasure and frustration for Costello fans that he rarely plays or sings anything exactly the same way twice, always exploring melodic and rhythmic modulations. Sometimes it renders an old favourite almost unrecognisable ("Accidents Will Happen" lived up to its title), other times it gifts them rich new life ("Alison" was extraordinarily tender and heartfelt). After two weeks traversing the UK, Costello's voice was roughed up and missing notes in the low range but he always gives everything he's got, and by the close was busting out falsetto cries of spine-tingling splendour.
He alluded to his recent brush with cancer when he said things weren't looking too good for him a couple of years ago, and added, sincerely, "If this should be the last time we play, I want to thank everybody in the band and crew." There are three more shows on Costello's UK tour, but he admitted to uncertainty about whether they would go ahead under the present circumstances. Ticket-holders should check venue websites for up to date information.
"I know we kid around a lot and everybody's kind of scared," Costello admitted, with touching sincerity, "but we are all going to be all right if we just do what's sensible. Or maybe we won't be! If it's our time, its gotta come someday, so we might as well enjoy ourselves." With the whole audience on their feet, he led his band through a tumultuous and upliftingly cathartic finale of "Pump It Up," "Hurry Down Doomsday," "Oliver's Army" and Nick Lowe classic "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding." "As I walk through this wicked world / Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity / I ask myself, is all hope lost? / Is there only pain and hatred and misery?"
Sing it, Elvis.