For those — and there are some — who've never been to the Albany Empire and are ignorant to the venue's overwhelming size, maybe the following local joke will illuminate: a fella goes to the Albany and opens the door. "Can I come in?" he asks, and the bloke behind the desk says, "Only if I come out."
So given that, it's understandable that the bill which played there Tuesday through Thursday last week took place amidst such discretion that in comparison Operation Overlord looked flyposted. The dates — arranged to mark Julian Holland's departure from Squeeze — brought them back to where they started and have played on and off ever since; and on and off stage, old friends and faces hugged each other and sobbed like a batallion re-union of romantic desert rats.
Tuesday opened with Alexei Sayle, a comic who looked like one of The Blues Brothers and rattled through a cruel hatchet job on what it's like when rock 'n' rollers attempt to go articulate. Watch out for him, he may signal the end of life on rock MDs as we know them.
And so to Otis Westinghouse And The Lifts, who (by courtesy of several paper cups and a length of string) by nine o'clock were revealed to be Costello And The Attractions. Elvis' reception was as rousing as the ensemble could muster and a terse "one two" led into "Beaten To The Punch." If he was doing this for fun and a favour you'd never have guessed: no room for smiles, no breaks between songs, no musical gags, nothing was relaxed. Costello performs and lives (I suppose) as if at any moment Sirhan Sirhan is going to yell "bastard" and come lunging from the stalls waving a loaded .45; or as if being friendly would result in a nationwide boycott of his work on the grounds that he ain't so tough after all.
Perhaps his stance has gone too far now and what was once a wacky and endearing oddball image has now accelerated to a point where those glasses and that austere veneer are dangerously stretching Declan McManus like a piano wire and to relax it could result in an almighty SNAP.
With "Chelsea," "Oliver's Army," "Lipstick Vogue," the slow blues of "Help Me" and "Don't Look Back," the set was random and rich, lasting about 40 minutes with no encore. (Tuesday was the only night he didn't later return with Squeeze.)
Thursday it turned out to be the best gig. John Cooper Clarke dodged in and out and between sets nipped on to bawl just remembered jokes at a good natured but baffled gathering.
For the books, I'd say that JCC looked as though he enjoyed the do more than anyone, Squeeze included — who flew through hit after hit and I never realized how much I liked them and how well I knew their records until last week.
Where Elvis had gritted teeth they grinned, and you got the feeling that they perform the songs for the audience and the hell of it, whereas Elvis — who actually knows all the words to their songs! — knocks them out for duty and appreciation. The only black mark against Squeeze was that on such an informal night they might have been less workmanlike and performed their excellent cheezy nightclub version of "Up The Junction" which they did last time here, on Chris Difford's birthday. The combined Squeeze/Attractions encores though were magic, curiously sans Holland. Elvis and Glenn Tilbrook took over the roles of William Bell and Judy Clay for a faithful rendition of "Private Number" which was certainly the highlight of the three days. A great three days!
And finally, what may be a telling anecdote: as the after concert drink-up wound its way into Friday morning we were all issued daft paper hats. Elvis took his, put it on, but as soon as the person who gave it to him went off, crumpled it up and threw it away. Being seen in a party hat would tighten that piano wire another notch, and whilst not wanting to hurt his hosts' feelings — once they were gone — he didn't want to betray his own.
Then it hit me: I was standing there creating a conspiracy around a paper hat. God help me! Putting the pen away, I found some dear old pals and got quite, quite relaxed...