Demand for babysitters in North London’s smarter suburbs hit an all-time high on Saturday as Elvis Costello played a career-spanning marathon set at the Festival Hall. Accompanied only by his Attractions pianist Steve Nieve for most of the show, the patron saint of the Nick Hornby generation opened with a gutsy reading of his vintage hit, "Accidents Will Happen." Peppered with celebrity fans, including Clint Eastwood and Costello’s latest squeeze, the Canadian chanteuse Diana Krall, the audience roared with polite delight.
The reception afforded Costello’s latest album, North, has not been as friendly as that. A suite of jazzy ballads which opaquely detail the singer’s break-up with his ex-wife, Cait O’Riordan, and his new relationship with Krall, the record sounds like it was designed as the soundtrack for a knowingly retro romantic comedy set in a snowbound Manhattan at Christmas.
As a crooner, the former punk poet laureate Costello is no Nat King Cole or Tony Bennett. As a songwriter, he is no Cole Porter or Kurt Weill. All the same, his new compositions came alive on the Festival Hall stage, where they seemed to acquire far more subtlety and grace than their studio blueprints.
The autumnal "Fallen" and the desolate "When Did I Stop Dreaming?" were particularly affecting numbers, and the more playful "Let Me Tell You About Her" allowed Costello to pull the kind of self-deprecating grimaces that were pure Eric Morecambe.
Almost every chapter of the singer’s long and varied career was represented, from bittersweet country-pop ballads such as "Almost Blue" and "Indoor Fireworks" to landmark political protest songs including "Pills and Soap" and the immortal "Shipbuilding." The climactic arrival of the Brodsky Quartet also gave the show a late energy boost, their glacially precise strings working beautifully against the warm grain of Costello’s voice.
For every rapturously received classic during the evening, however, there were lesser tunes hamstrung by the singer’s famously cluttered lyrics and mannered vocal delivery. Costello remains a prolific and consistently impressive Britpop icon, but his quality control is haywire. He has never mastered the art of pacing and structuring a set, and he missed several chances to end his Festival Hall show on a high.
Instead, with a drawn-out series of whimpers and bangs, he broke the cardinal rule that you should always leave a crowd wanting more. After almost two-and-a-half hours, Elvis left the building. By that point, even a stony-faced Clint Eastwood looked relieved.