On Tuesday night, Elvis Costello, keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas strode purposefully on to the same performing space that had hosted their first Melbourne show back in 1978 and did just what they did all those years ago: they kicked straight into a back-to-back set of high-energy rock songs. Only a few things had changed. There was a little nod to modernity with a taped intro, Dave & Ansel Collins' Double Barrel, heralding the group's arrival, and the band has a different bassist. Instead of the linear, busy playing of Bruce Thomas, there is now the supple, swinging style of Davey Farragher. But otherwise, it was a quintessential Elvis Costello show, even down to the employment of the much-loved "Accidents Will Happen," which was a brand-new composition back in 1978, as the opening song.
What became clear as this show progressed was how adept Costello and the incredibly tight and versatile musicians who accompany him have become at a sort of sleight-of-hand with the playlist. Costello is no '70s revivalist; it's the new material that matters most to him.
Throughout this 130-minute, 30-song set, he played 11 of the 13 tracks from his latest album, the southern-gothic song cycle The Delivery Man, many of which took on more lyrical and musical power in the live setting. But because he also rolled out most of his old hits — "Good Year For The Roses," "Oliver's Army," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," "Pump It Up" and "Every Day I Write the Book" (reworked into "A Hard Day's Night"-style, beat group outing) — as well as some surprises from the back catalogue, such as the new wave classic No Action, the show seemed at first blush like an even-handed survey of the voluminous Costello songbook.
Was it the best Costello performance Melbourne has seen? I'd give that honour to his Hamer Hall gigs in 2002. But as a testament to the life-affirming, emotionally challenging effects of four people playing amplified instruments, it was hard to go past. One more thing: Melbourne's Stephen Cummings, aided by guitarist Shane O'Mara, played a brilliant support set. Tickets were priced under $100. Who needs the Eagles?
Elvis Costello and the Imposters are performing tomorrow at A Day On the Green, Rochford Wines, Yarra Valley.