So here we all are, fidgeting uncomfortably in our rows of seats, and there he is, caught in the spotlight, no guitar, no microphone. A jarring experience for all of us, then.
"This is the first night of the Juliet Letters tour, and we are trembling," he says, with admirable candour. He explains briefly, the premise of the project shuffles nervously. His partners raise their bows, and we're away.
The Juliet Letters is certainly the most askance step Costello's taken, even in a career characterised only by its unpredictability. It's also — doubters heed — one of the most compelling records he's made. The collaborative aspect and the structured variations-on-a-theme content have combined to free him from the grip of his myth and let trim let rip as a lyricist, arranger and, especially, singer. From the opener, "For Other Eyes," Costello's distinctive serrated vocals twist between the layers of strings like an adder in a woodpile.
There was always a danger that tonight would fail to match the poise of the record, that Costello would play the po-faced artiste or, worse, turn the thing into I one of those ghastly afternoons when your class were taken to a concrete shed to have "Peter & The Wolf" played and explained to them by a hack orchestra and an old man who dribbled. To Costello's credit, though, he handles proceedings with a deft grip, affecting an amusing little jig through the mad woman's tirade of "Almost Had A Weakness" (Costello as Viz's Mrs Brady, presumably and then nailing the album's showstopper, "Taking My Life In Your Hands" with an astonishing vocal performance. That takes us to the interval which is as much fun as only ram-raiding a bar in a flying wedge of people unused to the protocol of a classical concert can be.
The rest of the concert consists of the rest of the album, which is fine, with especial hosannas directed at "This Sad Burlesque," the wrenching "The Letter Home" and the hilarious "Damnation's Cellar."
The rare stumbles occur in the same places as on the record, on the oompah-oompah cod-Arthur Sullivan l-am-the-very-model-of-a-post-modern-singwriter efforts. The best moments are the ones that sound like great Elvis Costello ballads arranged for strings. One suspects the intentions were a bit loftier than that, but that's not an assessment to be displeased with.
To the encores, and the inevitable shouts of "Oliver's Army." Costello, thankfully, knows better than to oblige, so we get a new song, a version of "Scarlet Ribbons," one repeat performance, and a Kurt Weill tune. Though Costello's healthy revulsion for populism is a byword, it might have been apposite, as well as plain nice, to hear one or two of this project's direct ancestors — "God's Comic," say, or "Miss Macbeth," or "Harpie's Bazaar." Still, you know someone's done well when you only want more.
The lights come up on a standing and heartfelt ovation at the end. Costello, for all the defensiveness he's exhibited over this album, looks grateful, humbled and visibly touched.
The end of a great night with the most irascible maverick in the business.