Boxing day in the heart of a sleepy city and the pretty things of Knightsbridge have fled to seek their seasonal excitement elsewhere. Apart from a bout of plum derby games for the capital's football hoodlums — and we'll leave the morning's events at Highbury out of this one — London is burning with boredom.
Even at this time of year, however, there is always one concert that is not to be taken casually. While most of our pop heroes would have been content to wash down the Christmas turkey with the usual dollop of festive fun, Elvis Costello opts for a musical marathon, spreading 40 of his finest songs over an exhausting but often brilliant two-and-a-half hour set.
As he intimated in our November cover story, Elvis sees his career at the crossroads. It is a time to plan future strategies and take stock of past triumphs and troubles. In the light of that, it is tempting to look at his Albert Hall show as a personal assessment of his achievements to date. The set is basically a glorified "best of," spanning all seven of his studio albums with characteristic diversions here and there for a couple of unsung singles, obscure B-sides, a well chosen cover version and a trilogy of unrecorded originals.
Some of the songs run headlong into one another, some are slightly changed and some punctuated with additional fire-power courtesy of the four-piece horn section that once coloured Kevin Rowland's new soul dreams. Such an ambitious set could quite easily degenerate into a shambles. The fact that it all hangs together with cohesion and clarity, is an indication of the man's ability to pace a live show.
The show falls roughly into four sections, the first being a brief solo spot. Decked out in dinner jacket, Elvis croons his way through "The Comedians" and "The World And His Wife" (both unrecorded), "New Amsterdam" and "Pidgin English," accompanied only by his own soft strumming.
Into part two and the pace is instantly upped and The Attractions introduced. With a click of the heels and a wave of an arm, they soar forcefully into "Hand In Hand" and "Green Shirt," crisp mementoes for a far flung corner of the Costello career. From a whisper to a scream in the space of a minute.
Next up is the rolling "Shabby Doll" from the last album, followed by a cunning cover of "Backstabbers," the inclusion of the O'Jays' Philadelphia classic yet another indication of the recent and long-overdue move back to early '70s Stateside soul music for inspiration — check Paul Weller's "Stoned Out Of My Mind" or Dexys' "TSOP" for further evidence of such laudable pillage.
The taut, frenetic tempo continues through "King Horse," "And In Every Home," "Detectives," "Temptation" and the sadly neglected "Head To Toe" single before this urgency sags somewhat during the doleful agony column angst of "Long Honeymoon," "New Lace Sleeves," "Good Year For The Roses," "Almost Blue" and "Alison" — all songs which work better on record than live — until things begin picking up again with "Beyond Belief" and "Clubland."
The latter part of this second phase is perhaps the only part of the show in which the myopic minstrel begins to try the patience of his audience We are all still fixed firmly in our seats and when a ripple of mild Vegas-style applause greets the opening bars of "Roses," the spine shivers slightly at the polite neatness of it all.
Costello, of course, needs no phoney rock-rebel "toughness" to reinforce the impact of his songs — that sort of bitterness would only detract from the hard, plaintive lyrics of songs like "Shipbuilding" and "Oliver's Army." What he and The Attractions do occasionally lack is the ability to vary the texture of their music. For all Steve Nieve's unparalleled wizardry at the keyboard, there is only so much one can do with a four-piece band and the half-time break that follows "Clubland" couldn't have come at a better point.
When Costello and Nieve return for three songs at the piano, however, there is a renewed sense of tension in the sir and by the time the Bruce and Pete Thomas rhythm section have rejoined them, the audience are up on their feet. "Big Tears," an overlooked gem thrown away on the B-side of "Pump It Up," rolls into "Big Sister's Clothes" with "Shipbuilding" and "Oliver's Army" providing another compatible couplet.
For the fourth and final part of the set, Costello introduces the four ex-Dexys brass boys and dips grandly into his Get Happy back pages to keep the audience in the aisles.
What impresses most about the show's final installment is the ease with which the horns are grafted onto the souped up bar-room swing and swell of The Attractions. On both slow, dramatic ballads like "Watch Your Step" and "Clowntime" and snappy, driving blasts like "High Fidelity" and "I Can't Stand Up," the horns are an integral part of a surging wall of sound rather than just the icing on the cake — no mean achievement when you consider that hardly any of these songs featured brass in their original recorded form.
"Pump It Up" provides a suitably punchy encore before Elvis, The Attractions and the horns all depart, as brusquely as they first arrived, with barely a word tittered to their audience outside of the songs.
As the house lights are brought slowly up across the six tiers of seating, the impact of the show sinks slowly in. Its ultimate depth and diversity is quite staggering, the extremes of its lyrical moods a marvel and its sheer length a testament to the almost daunting body of work that Costello has assembled over the past six years.
No songwriter of his era has approached Elvis for consistency and class over that period, yet the elusive goal of mass commercial success continues to pass him by. Is he simply too good — truly a man out of time — or was there a winning pop edge to some of his earlier singles that is missing from the latter songs?
Whatever the explanation, it is probably purely academic now as he sits back to ponder his next moves! Costello has freely admitted that a phase of his career has now come to a conclusion of sorts.
The real question still left begging is this... whatever next?