For those who don't remember a young Elvis Costello, imagine a bespectacled railway-station clerk, who seems subservient enough, keeps to himself and obeys orders, but, at night, keeps a diary detailing all the slights against him, however minor, all the shortcomings and political intrigue, and plots elaborate revenge against his bosses. A punk-rock hotwire who never censors himself and is as bitter and nasty as you can get.
Now, look at Elvis Costello tonight.
He's a slice of history and a mature artist who can do as he pleases. As far as kids are concerned, he rocks for daddy, and is more concerned with keeping some kind of heritage intact and disinterring the past than making any bold new strides. But tonight, one sustained blast of his eclectic, sometimes boring, often caustic, musically precise show and you know, deep down, he's still not ready to join Eric Clapton, The Who et al in the current rock aristocracy.
The Roundhouse, a historic venue that remembers swinging London, is the perfectly contrary venue for Costello, both with the functional, accomplished and disdainful Attractions, and for his solo, semi-acoustic barbs. No self-respecting old punk would be seen in here, but then, in these days of mass marketing, hippies as well as old punks can both come in for a tongue-lashing disguised as sweet, sweet music.
The ghosts in the cavernous arena, not to mention the audience, trill to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" on the decks, before the Avenging One takes the stage for a rushed "Faith, Hope And Charity" that dispenses with pleasantries and lets the bad vibes flow.
He's in good voice, even for the acoustic interludes, but his sprightly tones are so familiar you'd hardly notice the difference — unless he had a cold.
Sadly, or perhaps inevitably, the older tunes make the most impact, even if he does acknowledge his recent songwriting for stretches at a time. Oddball to the last, he makes the oldies interesting for himself by adopting new arrangements. Time-honoured hits of the calibre of "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," and the obnoxious "Oliver's Army," are put across in an obtuse, left-field manner, whilst "Shipbuilding" and all its pathos remains intact, even in stripped-down form.
Costello makes attempts to entertain with some wry jokes, introducing one song by saying he "doesn't know what the f--- it's about", but he's most comfortable tinkering with the songs at his disposal. "Clubland" benefits the most from this approach, as its jazzy, vibey ambience and sharp words transcend the '80s and seem prophetic in these techno days.
"All This Useless Beauty," a new song and also the title of his latest album, is mournful in contrast and is probably Costello acting bitter at not being cutting-edge any more, but otherwise he seems happy enough — especially on "What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding" — with his fate. Sometimes, nostalgia can be a bittersweet pill.