Elvis Costello, out on a limb — be it intentionally or unintentionally — almost as long as he's been around.
And on this new tour — which must put him in line for the rock equivalent of the MBE for its "terrain breaking ambition" — that means he's the same old Elvis. Hard hitting, uncompromising, technically perfect, powerful and... ultimately unfulfilling.
Elvis Costello live is the creature burning up with his own often brilliant talent. So brilliant in fact that it often becomes a barrage, one that eventually stops the audience in its tracks.
Sad, but true, as the Get Happy tour (the first outside major venues, standing gigs only, bringing rock to your town, etc etc) should be the tour that puts him — with added bonus of a superb album — way up on top of the tree. Margate may be early in the tour. Margate, off-season, may not be typical. But it seemed to prove that Elvis Costello on the boards isn't the conquering lion that inhabits a recording studio.
It's often very hard to work out exactly how Elvis sees himself on stage. He's strangely unanimated, yet the beads of sweat fly off his forehead almost as if they've been spat from inside his head. Inside the dance band chic clothing — red jacket, black trousers, black shirt — there's a real dancer, a real mover, trying to got out.
Yet he clings to his guitar, chops out a sparse rhythm inside the wall of sound, and delivers the venom with scarcely a look around.
Producing the goods, remaining tightly in control and then... what?
You could be watching a dance with an adder. Puffed taut and ready to destroy he's fascinating. Daring you to relax, waiting to move in for the kill.
In the end it doesn't happen, and that's a disappointment.
Almost as if the songs are too good (or whichever way you choose to say that) the challenge becomes too great. For every triumph on stage — and the unexpected low-key inclusion of "Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," all quiet and mournful, was one of them — there that don't quite come off.
But that power, and the pace of a packed hour-long set, keep the audience there. Riveted if not ecstatic, anxious to reward if not exactly throwing themselves at the stage.
Costello simply won't deliver that way, one reason why he follows a very hard road. And on the well-off-the-beaten-track tour as this is, he's going to find just how well the rest of the country is keeping up.
The curt acknowledgements give way to a conclusion, a razor cut through the preceding hour. Three songs, deservedly, become the encore. First, a truly impressive working of "Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," convincing us for once and all just how good the song is, and just how little justice it's really been done on the current Fab 40 single. On the live version there's a return of that tantalising glimpse of Elvis Costello really getting happy, wringing through two decades of fine music and squeezing out his own. By rights it should happen more often; on tour it rarely seems to.
Second, as expected, "Oliver's Army," with Elvis back in his shell, clipping the song down before it ever takes off. And third, good enough for most, is the very old and the very lovely "Pump It Up." Here Elvis faces the sea of dancers head on, his own arm gawkishly raised and pointing, his own expression slightly quizzical.
It's well known, it's easy and a fair enough end to the evening, but perhaps he wishes that reaction had happened earlier on?
Even Elvis Costello, up on stage, finds it difficult to get happy just by thinking about it. Down in the audience, and really trying, it's more than twice that hard.