Becoming an annual fixture in the rock calendar, Elvis Costello’s latest visit to the Royal Albert Hall came under the umbrella of BluesFest, a week-long gathering of rootsy artists including Van Morrison, Robert Cray and Sheryl Crow. In both 2012 and 2013, Costello filled the same venue with his Spectacular Spinning Songbook show, a riotous music-hall carnival of pure showmanship, but this latest performance was looser in format and much of it was solo and acoustic.
Snappily dressed in a three-piece suit, Panama hat and jazzy red shoes, the 60-year-old singer opened and closed with two blocks of songs featuring his regular live collaborator former Attractions pianist Steve Nieve. "Accidents Will Happen" was the pleasingly punchy opener, though Costello’s verbose lyrics and meandering, melismatic vocal mannerisms soon began to grate during "(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea" and "London’s Brilliant Parade." His croaky vibrato fell flat several times during this set, wandering not just off-key but offstage and round the block.
Sharing droll asides and warm anecdotes about his wife Diana Krall and his father Ross MacManus, Costello’s default setting is midlife contentment nowadays, but he still summoned some of his old punk bite on the bitter "45" and the regally disdainful "The Comedians." His plaintive jazz ballad "Almost Blue," conceived as a Chet Baker pastiche and later covered by Baker himself, also sounded sublimely tender, but his Mississippi bluesman schtick on Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," accompanied on piano by opening act, Georgie Fame, was less convincing.
Gathering momentum for an agreeably irreverent closing statement, Costello looped "Watching the Detectives "into an endless Moebius strip of clanging, twanging noise using his guitar effects pedals, then left if playing as he left the stage. Encore versions of "Shipbuilding," a rollicking "Oliver's Army" and the obligatory blast through Nick Lowe’s "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?" followed, providing the set with some much-needed emotional uplift. Sprawling and uneven, this was not a vintage Costello show.