"The Beloved Entertainer" is the subtitle of Elvis Costello's new album, Spike. After spending an evening in his company it is easy to understand why. For, having won over hearts and souls for years with mere words and music, his live performance has become a veritable one-man variety show. Choosing a typically obtuse tour schedule of off-the-beaten-track colleges to reintroduce himself after an usually lengthy absence, Elvis appeared at Long Island University unaccompanied but for an acoustic guitar. Oh, and a rapid-fire line of wit, a taste for the theatrical, a story-teller's touch, and a voice that has never sounded finer.
Hyperbole? Then let me qualify by saying that these ears found Spike heavy enough listening to perhaps expect a dour approach to the live show. But, dressed suggestively like the teddy boy he is at heart, Elvis bounced on stage after Nick Lowe's warmly appreciated opening slot with the giddy step of a newly-wed. He joked early on that he had been performing longer than most of the audience had been alive, but though they were young, they were also diehards who knew every song — Americans consider Elvis Costello one of their own.
And with good reason: Elvis feeds off and thrives on American culture itself, nowhere better highlighted than on the centrepiece performance of "God's Comic," which in a rambling monologue digs at American TV, literature and politics, while also lampooning Scandinavian royalty and God Himself for good measure. These spoken word sections now rival even Billy Bragg's for length, most likely the result of freedom from the expectations of on-stage musicians.
This lack of responsibility also allows him to take his songs on journeys through other people's: "Jackie Wilson Said" shows up on "Radio Sweetheart," The Beatles' "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" on "New Amsterdam" and "Sign O' The Times" on an electric "Pump It Up." Most of the audience would have been happy enough to hear just Elvis' own material. In a set that spanned his entire recording career, at least three albums still went untouched.
Every bit as much as his songs, it was Costello's voice that made this such a memorable night. Of huge range and emotion, he also put it through wailing cat howls during "Pads, Paws And Claws" and equally piercing screams during "Mystery Dance." Such abuse should ruin any set of lungs, but his remained tender enough to handle ballads like "Baby Plays Around" and "Alison" and still send shivers down the spine.
As expected, Nick Lowe joined in for a couple of encores ("His Latest Flame" and "What's So Funny About Peace Love And Understanding?"), after which many decided 100 minutes was a satisfactory length of performance and began to leave. Instead, a seven feet tall silk broken heart was wheeled on, and the star re-emerged as Napoleon Dynamite, clutching a devil's fork and wearing a psychedelic smoking jacket. A fully-costumed Wolfman then brought unsuspecting girls on stage, each of whom got to pull a Deadly Sin from the heart (those of "Awesomeness" and "Trump" again aimed at the home audience) and to request an Elvis favourite. A wayward scheme that could easily have sunk to the depths of Las Vegas, it actually revealed Elvis at his most charming. These last 45 minutes straddled the borders of comedy and theatrics as much as music, and it occurred to me that this solo Elvis Costello might be here to stay, a one-man show worthy of its own peak-hours television programme. But when he ended the night with his chilling promise to "Tramp The Dirt Down" on Maggie's grave, it was obvious that Elvis Costello has no desire to be ordained as Safe Family Entertainment. In the meantime, he's still among the very best we've ever seen.