Elvis Costello has had another odd, frustrating year. Increasingly overlooked by an indifferent public, it seemed that Costello was no longer essential; no longer quite so necessary: he seemed, in fact, to have lost his grip on their imagination.
The majority of critics appeared to be similarly disenchanted. Goodbye Cruel World was admired in these columns, but elsewhere dismissed as inferior; irrelevant, almost. Even the notices for his October tour with The Attractions were generally poor. I saw the last of their appearances that month at the Hammersmith Palais and had to concede that, yes, they did sound jaded, uncharacteristically sloppy: at odds, somehow, with themselves and their material. A trial separation, most commentators loudly advised, would benefit both parties.
Costello obviously agreed. He'd spent the summer playing solo dates in America and was repeating the exercise here before the dust had properly settled on his last shows with The Attractions. Tom Morton caught the opening night of the tour in Edinburgh and thought that going solo (if only briefly) was the smartest move Elvis had made in a while. After this concert at the RFH, one can only agree, still a tad awe-struck by the range, scale and depth of Costello's genuinely epic performance.
Elvis arrived on stage at nine on the dot, looking very sharp, eager to get on with it. He'd rapped out a stinging version of "Girls Talk" before most people were back in their seats. The pace of the show was astonishing: 10 songs in the first 30 minutes, with Elvis clearly just warming up, was a mere canter compared to the subsequent gallop that took us to the finishing tape at around 11.30, some 39 songs later.
Early highlights included a radically altered reading of "The Only Flame In Town," turned here into a stark, solitary description of a love gone wrong, a typically dramatic "Pills And Soap," an aching "Kid About It" and a teasing "High Fidelity."
"I'll do a couple of Billy Joel songs for you now," Costello announced, settling down behind an electric piano for a milder smouldering "Motel Matches." The tragic "Love Field" led the audience into the brutal wastes of Richard Thompson's bleak, heartwrenching "At The End Of The Rainbow." Costello's performance was towering, a double Kleenex job that had the old heart throbbing in the throat. A terse, tortured "Riot Act," and he was off; but not for long. He was quickly back at the piano for a new song: a delicate touching ballad called "If You Can't Give Me What I Want, I'm Having It All" which expressed a tenderness not often apparent in his writing. It was neatly balanced by a brisk "Everyday I Write The Book" and another torrid new song, "Suffering Face" which prefaced an intimate, carefully poised "Alison" which segued beautifully into a version of Joe Tex's "The Love You Save Might Be Your Own."
A knockabout half-hour of duets with T-Bone Burnett, which included the by now celebrated version of Scott Mackenzie's hippie anthem, "San Francisco," "Baby's In Black" and "She Still Thinks I Care," was succeeded by another solo stretch that included the traditional "Month Of January" (taken from June Tabor's Abyssinians album), a clutching "Shipbuilding" and, finally, a darkly ironic "Peace In Our Time."
The evening had been a revelation, frankly. Songs that had recently begun to sound exhausted, too familiar to move the spirit, were re-invested with a crucial emotional force, a tremendous drama, a fierce pertinence. Finding Costello back in this kind of form was like being re-acquainted with greatness.
Concert of the year, sure.