It's a much heavier, hairier Elvis that comes a-calling this time around: that's the first thing you notice. He cuts a formidable (if rather odd-looking) figure as he saunters on stage, and despite the cheers that greet him, you can't help but wonder, looking at the six or seven thousand people gathered here tonight, the faithful and the simply curious, just how many honestly expect him to be anything more than a shadow of his usual self.
The signs, after all, were anything but reassuring. With Mighty Like A Rose, Costello's touring on the strength of what's widely considered to be the patchiest, most uneven album he's made in years; while his backing band, the Rude Five, have by the time they reach these shores somehow been whittled down to mildly cheeky three. And as if these things wasn't enough, by all accounts most of their equipment had met with a nasty accident shortly before the show.
Such a succession of calamities hardly inspires confidence. That it worked at all (and it did, here and there) is testament to the man's fitful brand of genius, and his ability to work himself out of the corners into which he seems to delight in painting himself. Because however vehemently he might deny it, the simplicity of his current band's bass-drums-organ line-up marks a circuitous, almost sneaky return to the pub-rock approach of The Attractions which he loudly repudiated some years ago. As such, Costello now finds himself in a very strange position indeed, effectively setting his past against his present in some kind of perverse musical palimpsest.
The increasingly elaborate arrangements of his last two albums make for a complex sound that defies easy reproduction in concert. Yet tonight Costello makes no attempt at fidelity. Instead, he takes a scalpel to his material, dissecting song after song, deconstructing them, then slapping them roughly back together again, often much changed in the process. Time and again he inserts scraps of other songs into his own (like wedging the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" into the middle of "God's Comic") with an uncharacteristic playfulness.
But if any one thing characterises his performance tonight, it's the vast chasm of quality that separates individual songs. He can, in the space of minutes, walk through a perfunctory "Veronica" —and then turn around and genuinely inspire gooseflesh with a stunning version of "Watching The Detectives", which, from humble beginnings as an unadorned guitar doodling, quickly spirals up and up into a frenzy, while we wait for the explosive climax that must surely come — but in fact never does.
All in all, it makes fora demanding, unpredictable show, yet on at least one occasion tonight Costello displays what can only be described as outright genius. It comes when "So Like Candy" segues into "I Want You" — and then that song, wondrously, slides into a gorgeous reading of "The Very Thought Of You," in which his voice — for once devoid of its customary sneer — is allowed to deepen, to caress the lyrics rather than simply spit them out.
After such a moment, everything else can't help but seem a little shopworn and tatty, though his second encore — a screeching, abrasive version of "Hurry Down Doomsday" — proved that his band could be something less than pedestrian when it suited them to do so.
Tonight, greatness generally eluded Costello. But it was a much closer thing than many would have given him credit for.