Looking and sounding like Eric Morecambe’s impish rock-star nephew, Elvis Costello revealed his hitherto untapped talents as a music-hall comedian at the first British date of his Revolver tour. Based on a live format from the veteran post-punk singer’s 1980s heyday, first revived on a US tour last year, much of the marathon set list was decided by inviting audience members on stage to operate the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a giant wheel featuring the names of dozens of Costello songs. A people-powered search engine 20ft tall, this was interactive entertainment at its most hands-on.
Costello’s elaborate stage set resembled a cross between a Victorian fairground and a Sixties TV game show, complete with cocktail bar and burlesque go-go dancers. Fronting a trio that included two of his trusted longtime collaborators, the keyboard player Steve Nieve and the drummer Pete Thomas, the 57-year-old singer performed in a vintage three-piece suit, jaunty straw boater and occasional top hat. Roll up, roll up for the wisecracking ringmaster of vaudevillian rock.
While the Spectacular Spinning Songbook was an impressive visual gimmick, Costello soon made it clear that some choices were rigged, and largely abandoned it during the second half. Instead, he digressed into solo numbers and more rootsy interludes, including a guest appearance by his younger brother Ronan MacManus, together with his Celtic folk band Biblecode Sundays. The singing siblings duetted delicately on "American Without Tears" and "Little Palaces," paying tender tribute in the process to their late father, the trumpet player Ross MacManus.
Costello also briefly put his comic persona on hold to revisit his political protest-singer past. "Tramp the Dirt Down," an impassioned hate song unapologetically relishing the prospect of Margaret Thatcher’s death, earned a riotous standing ovation. Glasgow clearly does not forgive and forget. The mournful Falklands war requiem "Shipbuilding," wrapped in a silken jazzy arrangement and warm vibrato vocal, was more understated but all the more powerful for it.
On stage for almost three sweat-soaked hours, Costello’s style-hopping versatility and Springsteen-style stamina levels were extraordinary, even if he sometimes seemed to be overwhelming us with quantity over quality. A few too many meandering plodders weighed down the show’s first half, including an ungainly reworking of Chuck Berry’s "No Particular Place to Go."
But the final hour was pure joy, from the Cole Porter-style ditties of the singer’s most recent album, National Ransom, to the thunderous closing stampede of Costello classics, including "Oliver's Army" and "Pump it Up." As the exhausted Glasgow crowd filed out afterwards, Eric and Ernie crooned "Bring me Sunshine" over the venue sound system. The perfect coda to a funny, boisterous, big-hearted musical-hall variety show.