"Forgotten already, huh?"
Elvis Costello smiles faintly at the "joke" his bassist, Bruce Thomas, has just cracked and turns to face me. Despite looking younger and less healthy than he does in his Riviera Global cool publicity pix, despite the fact he's sunk more than a couple of brandy and cokes, he still tries to come on with the whole warped and bitter schtick.
"I remember that review of yours. (I panned his performing abilities on the Stiff tour last year.) I was after you for while. Not like I was after Frances Lass of Time Out – I was really after her – but if I'd met you...
"I could still recite your review word for word."
Go ahead; I can hardly recall it myself.
"Forget it. I can't remember it all now."
Being anywhere with Elvis the Cee ensures a highly charged atmosphere. Add his Attractions, his moderately unpleasant quasi-egomaniacal manager, Jake Riviera, a bunch of music press scribblers and a couple of Irish journalists (this is, after all, Belfast) and you'd be stupid to open your mouth to ask the time of day without expecting your ears to he filled with brittle, pointed, sarcastic, even slightly venomous piss-taking. Jake does his whole obnoxious manager trip so successfully that his endless Irish jokes have the Irish writers not only apologising for being Irish and telling Irish jokes themselves but claiming that the jokes were all true, the Irish really were stupid. Even leaving aside the irony that Elvis himself comes from Liverpool Irish stock (and if he's not a bright lad, I'm Kubla Khan), that's like blacks telling a casual racist in all seriousness that they live in trees.
Elvis himself kept quiet, reserving the bite of his tongue for journalists like me, seeing if we could handle it without getting upset. In a peverse kind of way it was like an initiation test. When the Costello bandwagon hits town, you're either on the bus or getting run over by it.
Letting the scene wander round my (slightly drunk) mind, the only parallels I could come up with were film clips of the Beatles being ultra sardonic at 1965 press conferences or more precisely Dylan in Don't Look Back laying into some poor jerk of a journalist in Newcastle. Costello might not be the new Dylan (and he should thank his God for that) but he packs the same kind of whiplash wit. Probably because it comes from the same root – belief in his own talent and abilities and the resultant fierce in-group fear of those strengths being diluted by music business leeches or the uncritical adulation of selfseeking worshippers. He feels – probably correctly – that he needs protection from those blood suckers and so defends himself the only way he knows how – with verbal lashings.
And the velocity of his ascent to the upper realms of the rock and roll scam (first single out a year ago, dismissed as a mere pleasant Nick Lowe / Graham Parker / Van Morrison; now he's got an album going straight into the charts at number four) has been so rapid that it still seems faintly ridiculous that this little creep in Oxfam suits and big glasses be a pop star of at the second magnitude. The pressures must be heavy enough to drive anybody to the wall, maybe even through it.
All I can say is be thankful they haven't destroyed Elvis yet. Before, I'd always rated him very highly as a songwriter but found his live shows superficial. The bitter twisted little man ambience was so heavy-handed that I'd end up laughing. At the Ulster Hall, I saw the blissful light. His presence and the band's playing was so powerful, so – there's no other word for it – wired that it was like watching some kind of high intensity encounter group therapy. I haven't seen such a show since the Clash were playing the clubs. The same feeling that this was all that mattered at the moment. The fear to look away in case you missed the tiniest fraction. Hypnosis but without the exploitation that implies.
The crowd, naturally, was his before he played a note. Six Counties kids starved of rock and roll and too often treated as background misery colour for music press features must have been truly thankful that someone up there on the stage related to them with respect. No banalities about the troubles – like Sham's "Ulster Boy" – just brief song announcements and a score of songs.
I don't know if you remember the TV puppet show, Thunderbirds but there was a character in it called Brains – all head, no body and big, big glasses. Give that head a body and you've got Elvis. Where in the early days his microphone poses looked forced, now he dances about and beats hell out of his guitar like he's in a self-induced but fully under control trance.
But what gawky marionette comes up with songs of the calibre of Elvis? Starting with a slowly-building "Waiting For The End Of The World" running through his terse "Good Evening" at the start of the fourth song, his founding statement, "Less Than Zero," and on the final three encores, he was never less than mesmerising, the band was never less than awesome and the songs were predictably as good as the album and not so predictably, often even better.
Like "Red Shoes," which in the context seemed even more a song of hopeless hope (deep down, Elvis is the most godawful romantic). Just as everybody else is slowing down their songs, Elvis speeds his up. Peverse little sod, ain't he. But he gets away with it because he is so good, so much his own man. And "Little Triggers," while it still sounds to these ears like the kind of song that Nick Lowe might have written in his Brinsley days (and that's a compliment), had much more emotion live than it does on record. "Watching The Detectives" naturally draws the wildest crowd response. It's also the tensest, most dyanamic moment of the set. When Elvis hands his guitar to a roadie half way through and wraps himself round the mike, tearing his throat into the anguish of it all, he looks like a matinee idol trying to come on real for once and succeeding by the sheer power of his belief. Balance that against the aural contrast of the bright, happy organ figures and you've got the kind of paradox that makes Elvis and his Attractions tick.
These days Elvis refers to the Attractions as "the band I'm in" not "my band." The difference is subtle but important but it's what transforms them from just another band into a world-beating outfit. If Patti Smith talks about rock and roll being a substitute for war, the Attractions know it and don't bother talking about it. Bruce Thomas (bass), Pete Thomas (drums) and Steve Naive (organ) – see, you got a name check, boys – provide the colour to turn Elvis's songs into widescreen epics.
As a rock and roll show it could hardly be faulted. The only competition Elvis had was his own shadow, projected high over the organ pipes during "Night Rally." I can't think of anyone else currently playing who could even come near.