That bloody awful beard doesn't help matters, no, but there's far, far more to it than that. Whether it's something to do with the worthy plod of the backing bond and the dull pedestrian arrangements, or whether it's in the startling lack of verve in the vocals, which just grizzle where once they raged, spat and bit, or whether it's tied up in the complete non-appearance of Costello's essential impulsive mischief, the unassailable impression left is that that's not Elvis Costello up there singing tonight.
We who have held Costello's songs in a place very close to our hearts for many many years come tonight looking for reason to forgive the feeble Mighty like A Rose (spectacular wordplay as diversion from dearth of ideas, verdant instrumentation as compensation for relative lack of songs) and leave wondering what it can possibly be that impels a man only about three years older than Shaun Ryder to behave like a crotchety, walking-stick brandishing grandfather of several.
The thing with Costello's driving anger was always that it was as accurate as it was ferocious, hunting down deserving targets with withering accuracy, and yet counterpointed by some of the loveliest sentiments ever sung ("I'll Wear it Proudly," omitted tonight, still knots the ventricles like no other). Tonight's stand-in Costello trades solely in indiscriminate peevish irritation. Some faintly amusing lines in an updated "Tramp The Dirt Down" arouse a response of tumultuous Pavlovian liberalism near the finish, but it's hardly "He's contemplating murder again / He must be in love." And when he does try to come over all tormented-but-lender, all he succeeds in doing is reducing "Alison" to a whined complaint (not a lament) set to blundering accompaniment.
I who stand before you and faff around the point admit it because I honestly haven't the faintest clue what Costello, or whoever, thinks he's doing. This makes him (still) less tediously transparent than most, but it does not make tonight any good. Such searing essays in the art of the song as "Accidents Will Happen," "Suit Of Lights" and "Temptation" are delivered with an indifference which would have been perversely thrilling were it contemptuous, but it's just indifferent. "The Other Side Of Summer," arguably his best single ever, is stripped of the giddy fairground organs, as an acoustic waltz (someone's got the bootleg version of "Like A Rolling Stone") and demonstrates that there's a thoroughly boring song in there struggling to get out; "Veronica" likewise, and the dreadful "So Like Candy" goes on for weeks and tails off into "I Want You," an outrageous waste of his killer punch.
Never, however, does it grind so close to a complete halt as it does when Costello feels it necessary, as he so often does, to take a tilt at the greatest hits of Blind Mango Chutney or somesuch and embarks on an excruciating blues epic with the band shuffling contentedly along behind him. (Any claims Costello has to a blues heritage are as fictitious and pointless as those U2 laid on Rattle & Hum. Why this craving for such spurious notions of "authenticity"? What is he scared of? Transience, at this stage?) The band are at all times competent, never as exclamatory and muscular as The Attractions or as versatile and wired as The Confederates) and Marc Ribot's guitar playing throughout is so relentlessly pub-rock one can only assume he's taking the piss.
Costello's decision to take a turn at the piano provokes a spectacular stampede in the direction of the conveniences, which is a shame, because "Couldn't Call It Unexpected" is gorgeous, and actually sung with Costello's customary arresting passion. His voice, when he can be bothered to push it, remains serrated and scabrous, one of the most potent in pop. It's a great moment, and one that makes you wish there were more like it, but when it ends, as great things must, it's back to tepid stomps through Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love And Understanding?" and yet further butchery with blunt instruments.
Tonight's was a wretchedly drab performance from one of the most compelling in the business. The temptation to announce that Costello has now gone irretrievably Over The Wall, that he's now as much a hollow, shelled-out old bore as those he's adopted as his "contemporaries" of late (McGuinn, McCartney) is great, but it's not as simple as that. With a talent as deep, wide and tall as his, it never is. All I know is that the Elvis Costello whose records have sung to me louder over the years than almost anyone else's seems to have absconded and taken the till with him.
The old man with the beard means nothing to me.