Amongst the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall, Elvis Costello & the Imposters deliver a storming three-hour show, that is part revival meeting, part sleazy gameshow and part last days of the music hall.
Costello fans have grown used to a shifting persona – The Angry Young Man of the 70's and 80's, the awkward experimenter of the 90's, and the worthy faux-Americana of recent years. Last time I saw him he was firmly in the grip of American roots music, it was expertly executed but by gosh it's the dullest music of his career.
Thankfully, tonight he's dusted off an old persona from the mid 80's – Napoleon Dynamite. A fading gameshow host with a snarky personality and a Spectacular Spinning Songbook. This is a Wheel of Fortune, which Napoleon invites members of the audience onto stage to spin. The conceit is that Elvis & The Imposters will play whichever song it lands on, whilst the audience member cage-dances.
There's an element of the huckster about this, and it's probable Elvis played whatever songs he felt like. The set drew heavily from the 77-86 period, opening with a nonstop sprint through new wave favourites – "Lipstick Vogue," "You Belong to Me," "Mystery Dance" and "Radio, Radio." Songs are grouped together by theme. When the wheel points to "Girl" we get "This Year's Girl," "Spooky Girlfriend" and "Party Girl."
The "new wave" era songs are delivered with a variable degree of quality "Oliver's Army" is dashed off in perfunctory fashion at the end of the first encore, but "Radio, Radio" is outstanding and "Pump It Up" (given a Memphis Funk arrangement) a triumph. The Americana section was a drag, a weak "Stations of the Cross," leads into a half-arsed take on "People Get Ready," the section only redeemed by the appearance of Nick Lowe for a stately 50's country-style run through of "Poisoned Rose."
It's the songs from Get Happy!, Trust and Imperial Bedroom that stand out. The dignified grandeur of the venue (proclaimed by Elvis as "the fleshspots of Knightsbridge")and the faded showbiz shtick of the Songbook concept suits these songs written and recorded when Costello & the Attractions were jaded popstars. "Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" is a rackety joy. "King Horse" an organ-driven treat, whilst "Man Out of Time" (which is coupled with the Stones' "Out of Time") is majestic.
The secret star here is keyboardist Nieve. It's his driven, organ sound that adds much of the colour and drama to the set. From melodica on "Man Out of Time" to swirling demonic hammond on "Running Wild," to a churchified "Favourite Hour" on the Royal Albert Hall's gigantic pipe organ.
His interplay with drummer Pete Thomas on "Watching the Detectives" creates a tense, sparse masterpiece. The Imposters are rounded out by Davy Faragher on bass and too strident backing vocals.
There's a political theme running through the evening. "My contribution to the Olympics is Murdoch's head on a stick" he commented (perhaps Elvis thinks he really is lookalike MP Tom Watson) and was joined onstage by Labour MP's Maria and Angela Eagle. Several audience members muttered about an American resident commenting on UK politics and I suspect a large proportion of the middle-aged South-Eastern audience probably support the coalition but many of the themes of his early songs such as "Shipbuilding" are bitterly relevant today.
"I never thought I'd have to sing this song again" introduced the moving "Tramp the Dirt Down," but the words have a new urgency in this era of austerity —
Just like a schoolboy, whose head's like a tin-can
Filled up with dreams then poured down the drain
Try telling that to the boys on both sides,
being blown to bits or beaten and maimed
Who takes all the glory but none of the shame?
The show was long, but there were few lulls. Costello took the band off after two hours, only to return a minute later to play a couple of solo songs themed around the days of Music Hall.
The band returned and played for 30 further minutes before exiting after "Oliver's Army." The second encore was a triumphant "Pump It Up" with Tennessee Thomas joining her father on a second drum kit, this was given a fantastic Memphis funk reworked arrangement.
Then Nick Lowe returns to duet on "Heart of the City" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding" for a brilliant finale.