They were all there. The world and his wife, a man called Uncle; red shoes, home truths, motel matches. Forty songs in 150 minutes: a third from the last two albums, plus some old, some new, some borrowed folk blues. The only things missing were The Attractions, and I did miss them; at times, how I yearned for a little of that of rock 'n' roll glory (Phew! — Live Ed) to clothe the bare bones of these solo songs.
Elvis alone was an intriguing proposition. A clue to future plans? A reclamation of folk-club roots? But nothing was revealed. It seemed more of a sidestep, like the gig with the Royal Philharmonic, than a new direction, I'd hoped — after "Gloomy Sunday," "Nothing At The End Of The Rainbow" — for a revelation or two, but what we got was a tour through the Songbook, rejigged here and there, all good stuff etc, but nothing really to turn you around. Not until the last set of encores when he played "A Smiling Shore," about the holocaust, from June Tabor's superb Abyssinians LP, one of the saddest, bleakest songs I've heard, and followed it with "Shipbuilding," so the two songs shaded into each other, a momentary dappling that conjured up new historical perspectives. That froze the blood.
To begin with, T-Bone Burnett had traced his routes through Country & Christian, both reeking with a strong whiff of Dylan. A couple of Zimesque narratives that featured impossibly beautiful women leading impossibly wealthy lives had me yawning. but his shorter songs were snappier even if they did just dress up oldtime homilies in a few personalised frills. But his conservatism sneered out of his humour, in the cynical front of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friends" and a silly swipe at "Art Movies," a third-rate Randy Newman rip-off.
Costello's a moralist too, of course, but a far more interesting one than Burnett because he's less an ideologue, more an iconoclast; and he deals in particulars not parables. Thus, their duo set (in the guise of The Coward Brothers), which split Elvis' solo encores, remained a lightweight affair as they teased out the country inflexions of The Beatles' "Baby's In Black" and exhumed Scott MacKenzie's "San Francisco" for a few laughs and its rich harmonies.
The Elvis solo sets were the night's meat and bone. Just that soulful, snarling voice and acoustic/electric guitar/piano. For a while he (or I?) couldn't quite get into it. There were great moments — a slowed-down, opened-out "Only Flame In Town," an anguished "Kid About It" — but a lot of songs just hurried by, their steely cleverness too exposed and El's naked voice more strident than intense, evoking memories of how much better it all sounded with The Attractions' power surging around him. But gradually the mood changed, sparks were struck, and the gems popped out: notably "Inch By Inch," "In A Love Field," "Home Truths," all given a hard-cutting edge they lack on Goodbye Cruel World. Plus a bitterly angry "Nothing At The End Of The Rainbow," that prophetic state-of-the-nation report on Thatcher's Britain, which lead provocatively into "Riot Act."
Still, this year's model is hard to fathom. Though it has two of '84's finest singles, Goodbye Cruel World is a lacklustre LP, sounding as if performed by men grown tired of rock 'n' roll. So the solo tour may be a refresher course, a leaf from the Bragg guide to success, but this concert gave us no answers. Just another good evening of Elvis Costello songs. still the best in British pop.