I travelled to Belfast last night to hear the bespectacled Liverpudlian muso Declan Patrick MacManus who had the audacity to adopt the name of the original rock and roll icon. When he first rose to public attention in the 70's, I didn't quite know what to make of this geeky guy billed as punk rock, who looked more like Buddy Holly, albeit with a load of attitude.
Although accompanied for much of his career by The Attractions, Costello has long since shaken off the new wave/punk profile and has moved comfortably across multiple genres, including R&B and jazz, and collaborated with a wide range of artists and songwriters — from Wendy James (Transvision Vamp) to Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, jazz pianist Marian McPartland, Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell. He even provided a cover of Charles Aznavour's "She" for the soundtrack to the London-based film, Notting Hill.
Last night's gig was a strictly solo affair in the 2000-seater Waterfront Hall. Apart from the odd bit of recorded backing, Costello's only company on stage was a bevvy of guitars, effects pedals (which he made too much use of) and a grand piano.
He kicked off with "Oliver's Army," one of his early hits and, appropriately for this gig, a song written in direct response to his first experience of Belfast. Another nice touch for a Belfast audience was a cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said."
The gig didn't get off to a strong start — possibly because it took Costello a while to warm up, but it may in part have been the sound guys taking a while to strike the right balance — all the more notable, and perhaps less easy to forgive, with a solo act than with a band. However, as the night progressed, he just got better and better and delivered an uninterrupted two hours and 15 minutes of enthusiastic performance including multiple encores.
I heard punters complaining on the way into the gig that there was no interval "likely because he just wants to get it done, dusted, earn his dosh and get home." After 28 or more songs (number depends on what you call a song — some were medleys), and more encores than any gig I have been at before, no-one was saying that on the way out.
Costello managed to introduce variety by, at times, resuscitating his early new wave persona, belting out old hits; at others being the jazzy crooner; others the vaudevillian; sometimes stepping away from the mic and achieving sufficient volume in the waterfront seemingly unplugged; encouraging lots of audience participation in to-fro exchanges, including in "Jackie Wilson Said," and in the great "Pump It Up." During one encore he took things completely left-field at the piano with lots of extraneous recorded noise and the live use of a bullhorn — all of which combined to create instantly a chaotic Waitsian feel — superb!
I am pleased to have been in the building with Elvis (and some other good company).