The theatre manager of the Portsmouth Guildhall stood in the foyer panicking. "This Costello chap hasn't turned up yet," he mumbled nervously to one of the stewards.
Everyone was waiting for the man and the capacity crowd waited for over an hour. Little did they know that they were waiting for the Jesus Of Cool. Filling in for the ailing Bruce Thomas on bass, Nick Lowe was late. It was his second gig with the band, and he had gone to London earlier in the day. One assumed it wasn't Chelsea.
Eventually Elvis was forced to take to the stage alone, accompanied only by his electric guitar. It was a genuine treat, his guitar breaks neatly complemented his amazing vocal phrasing. During the second number he announced, "Maybe Nick will turn up. I'll bring out the others in a minute." Sure enough, a couple numbers later, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard man Steve Mason walked onstage, making it a three-piece. Still no bassist, but the band played on.
Down front the kids acted like they were watching Status Quo, or at least a football match, heaving tiers of chairs in the direction of the security guards while cheering their hero on. Costello just looked at the chairs and proceeded to play.
Elvis Costello is a professional. He acted like unorthodox gigs like this one happened nightly. He did five tunes alone, five tunes with the three-piece band. They were all a treat, too.
Then Nick Lowe finally arrived, dressed in black, sporting the cleanest hair I've seen since Jackson Browne graced British stages. Nick ran his hand through his clean hair and the band kicked off a superb rendition of "No Action," sporting ace back-up vocals. Suddenly a bit of aggro developed down front and Mr. Costello broke with his icy cool demeanour to speak. Directly. "You wanna f***in' fight, then you go home and f***in' fight," he told his followers. The aggro ended.
"This Year's Girl" began, and again the lead vocal was exquisite. Nick cut through the rocky foundation (good old Nick) with a bass line that throbbed into the tune. He did the same on "Lip Service" while Costello tucked in some neat guitar.
Towards the end of the set Elvis arrogantly kicked off "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," turning his back to the crowd and exhibiting real star quality. When he grabbed the mike to sing and stopped playing the guitar the effect was painfully intense.
"Pump It Up" wasn't far behind, the definitive "Subterranean Homesick Blues" rip-off, especially in those great verses. The tune was soiled by early feedback, but it didn't matter because one of Costello's most endearing traits is his total regard for spontaneous atmosphere and energy.
For the grand finale it was down to "Watching The Detectives" with another incredible vocal, and finally a grand rock bash with "You Belong To Me."
And at the back of the hall, you could spot the theatre manager smiling.