The would-be enigma Sam Phillips, wife of T-Bone Burnett and schemer of the excellent Cruel Inventions LP, takes her local Hollywood stage in impossibly coy fashion. Wrapped in a blue sailor suit and white ankle socks, she greets us with a bashful "Hello, you big strong audience you," and rapidly inhabits a stage persona that veers nearer the precocious than the precious. Surely nobody is really this nervous before an audience.
Well, maybe she isn't. Her LP is a minor masterpiece of control and contrivance, a clever work marked by moments of genuine delights and flourish. I suspect Sam Philips knows exactly what she's doing. Her forte is the sudden lyrical quantum leap, a flash of delicious absurdity among the careful mannerisms. "Germany and Japan make me feel so poor / like seeing some new movie star in a dress I wore" she informs us on "Now I Can't Find The Door." Her twangy words resonate around the theatre.
The poetry quota is reduced by a sludgy backing band prone to AOR tedium, but Phillips' stage projection, which leaves Mary Margaret O'Hara resembling Buster Bloodvessel, genuinely enchants, and so does a daft encore romp through "These Boots Were For Watkins." If she loses those few Suzanne Vega mannerisms, the juices of Sam Philips' art will truly flaw.
Costello romps off to a storming start. The porky poet strides on stage and, without so much as a by-your-leave, fires into "Accidents Will Happen." Guitars crash about him, and there's a rush of joy and familiarity. The old warhorse is back!
His new LP is great, of course. With reservations. Nobody can fault Costello's penmanship, and the lyric sheet is a world of bitter love, revenge, power, passion and pathos. I can read it for hours. The music, however, fails to approximate the beauty and magnificence of the words, which is also a problem with tonight's stodgy bond. The Rude 5 don't look very Rude at all. In fact, one of 'em may well be Uncle Bob Holness from Blockbusters.
Elvis himself is unstoppable, though. He's firing on form, and the thrill level is high. The facial fungus may leave him looking oddly like that dogged Scouser John Peel but his verve and righteous ire hit us right between the eyes tonight. Seriously. His clenched death-rattle vocal has never sounded so pained, his torment so genuine. Tonight Elvis Costello is walking his talk. He's hurting bad.
"The Other Side Of Summer" is the night's first controlled detonation, Costello riding his words over the lovely melody like it's life-or-death to him. Maybe it is. "So Like Candy" stings and sighs with the bitter hopelessness of failed love; Elvis has always been good at playing flawed losers. Maybe he's in practise. And "Veronica" spits and hums his static. We can see life pulling him every which way.
So Costello the spiteful wordsmith serenades Hollywood with his artful barroom tales from Hell. It's a draining process. Thankfully, it's not all so bleak. The Beloved Entertainer isn't beyond playing the fool. "When I played this is Son Francisco last week, people were throwing themselves off the balcony," he confides before "Hurry Down Doomsday." "I was really surprised. There wasn't even a balcony there!" He also tugs his beard and declares himself Santa Claus. The Californians laugh. They would. They laugh at everything.
But humour isn't Costello's motor. Far from it. This was one man flexing his mighty mind, exorcising demons, mourning the pathos of underachievement. This was poetry. "Elvis is still King!" one airhead yells as he introduces "Alison" and Elvis, thorny to the end, pauses and grimaces; "Shit, I'm still King? I thought I was at least gonna be Prince by now!". There's more laughter, and then it's back to his weeping heart. His cheating, broken, vengeful, weeping heart, exhibited with panache, power and style. This is truly an extraordinary show.
The airheads have it. Elvis is still king.