The art of performance... warning bells ring in anticipation, security men bounce a few people out of the wrong seats, elderly British beat music twangs over the PA.
Suddenly the house lights fade, the leggy form of Steve Nieve scampers across the stage and darkness falls. An electric piano plays some moody, reflective chords, and then there's the voice. Nasal, a bit strained, booming round the hall as its owner remains invisible on the dark. It's "Shot With His Own Gun."
Lights come up, revealing Elvis alone at the front of the stage. He sings the words wearily, dragging on a cigarette and cradling a guitar which still has a plectrum wedged in its strings. Nieve plays out the chords as Elvis turns, dumps the cigarette with the knowingness of Philip Marlowe and snaps the Attractions into a blazing, impatient "Pump It Up." He's just starting, but already I'm gasping for breath.
Costello has developed so far, so fast, its frightening. He's spawned countless pale imitators who have pinched his voice and the icing off his musical cake. But now he's head and shoulders above any competition. He's invented bis own category, but it's too broad to have a name.
At Hammersmith, he was confident, relaxed sad relishing his complete control of his music and his audience. The main part of the set only ran for just over an hour, but Costello and Attractions packed so much into that space that it could have been two hours four hours, a week.
And yet, though he gave so much, Costello remained elusive, ambiguous as his own metaphors, using his music as a starting point to create compelling dimensions of mood and atmosphere.
It's easy to forget how many great songs he's written. Here, "Oliver's Army" was brutal and pumping. In "Strict Time," Pete Thomas's gloriously pounding percussion set up Elvis" vocal assault, while Nieve finished it off with clanging keyboards. "Temptation" has Stax stamped on it, but scratch away the label and underneath there's something much more fraught and questioning. "Radio Radio" was incandescent.
The Attractions' easy mastery of styles, from the urgent funk of "Watching The Detectives" to the gloves-off aggression of "Clubland," lets Costello stand apart from his songs even while he's the core of the performance.
In "Clowntime Is Over," Nieve's organ swirled and sucked soulfully while Elvis, marooned in a green spotlight, punched the air dramatically, every inch the performer. Songs that can seem subdued on record were brought miraculously into full-bodied close-up.
He's mastered the tricky art of ballad singing too. In the slow-moving blues of "I'll Take Good Care Of You," ragged piano and hard percussion gave him room to feel his way through the lyrics as if for the first time, discovering shades of meaning as he went.
He signed off finally with a rampaging "I Can't Stand Up." "I tasted the bitterness of my own tears," he snarled, hacking through the tangling nets of emotion with music of electric ferocity. And he nonchalantly threw in a quote from Wilson Picket's "634-5789" — just the title — just to remind us this richness didn't grow out of nothing.
As the house lights came up, the Shadows' "Wonderful Land" rippled through the speakers. It was a timeless evening.