Sounds, January 16, 1982

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Highly strung

Elvis Costello / Royal Albert Hall

Hugh Fielder

Maybe it was Elvis Costello's Christmas present to himself, hiring the Royal Albert Hall and the massed ranks of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as a back up band. Still, it's been a good year for the royalties

Inside the wrapping paper was a two and a half hour show. The first part consisted of Elvis and the Attractions grinding determinedly through a set drawn mainly from Trust and Almost Blue but with some half a dozen new songs to test your attention.

With Steve Nieve increasingly preferring the tinkling ivories of the piano to the tinny Hammond whine, the sound had an affectionate bar room feel to It but Bruce Thomas' sturdy bass and Elvis' own detached, passionate vocals prevented any sloppiness creeping in.

Even the arrival of slide guitarist John McFee (all the way from Nashville to be with us tonight ladies and gentlemen) failed to disturb the edgy atmosphere that makes Elvis such compelling viewing. Instead of dribbling all over the country songs he confined himself to short but telling phrases. and even suspicious redneck haters like me could find little to complain about.

And once the country section was over, instead of sending us off to the bar he came up with a devastating version of "Clowntime is Over" that crawled all over the original and then just to prove it was no fluke he did it again with "Big Sisters Clothes."

One drink later we were all back in the hall watching the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra watching us as they tuned up. When Elvis finally emerged again in a darker shade of grey than the first half (and a jacket that didn't make his legs look quite so ridiculously short) he was flanked fore and aft by TV cameramen who looked as if they were checking for dandruff on his collar. With only Steve Neive for intimate support they launched into "Shot By His Own Gun" which came close to disaster when Elvis and the orchestra lost contact with each either for a while but once Pate and Bruce emerged to harden up the bottom line, communications got onto a firm footing with only a couple of loose endings and one false start to mar the proceedings.

Anyone who'd thought that the orchestra were just there to add some schmaltz to Elvis' more croonable toons was soon in for a surprise. "Accidents Will Happen," "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" (admittedly at half speed but still a revelation) and even "Watching The Detectives" were all given the full classical treatment by arranger/conductor Robert Kirby among the more predictable numbers such as "Sweet Dreams," "Too Far Gone," "Good Year For The Roses" and "Alison."

The Attractions meanwhile stuck to their guns admirably, refusing to compromise their rock and roll ideals more than was absolutely necessary even though Pete Thomas must still be recovering from a crick in the neck caused by having to play drums sideways so as to see the conductor.

If "Detectives" proved to be the most adventurous collaboration, the orchestra moving in with some slick arrangements after the band had been allowed to set the song up in their own time, the song that lingered longest in the mind was the slow, meandering "Just A Memory" which Elvis hauled back from an obscure EP of a couple of years back and delivered with shimmering, spine-tingling effect.

"Alison" was as lush as you'd expect but even that had more sincerity than Linda Ronstadt's fake version and just in case we were about to depart with tears in our eyes there was a raucous gallop through Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love And Understanding" to round the evening off. The audience, who'd been rooting fervently for him all the way through, cheered long and loud for an encore but they didn't get one because, as Elvis said when he came back, "That's all the orchestra know." And he wasn't about to play anything twice.

The success of the evening depended largely on your expectations. My suspicions of "classical-rock fusions" date back to Deep Purple's "Concerto For Rock Group And Orchestra" at the same venue some 15 years ago and while I never thought Elvis would succeed where others have failed at least he made a creditable job of it and never came close to being the prat he could have set himself up for. Of course it was under-rehearsed and stilted but it could never have been anything else.

But I did find myself wondering why Elvis had chosen a classical orchestra to play with when a small string section or even a dance band might have been more productive.

But then, I wasn't paying.

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Sounds, January 16, 1982

Hugh Fielder reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions with John McFee and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Thursday, January 7, 1982, Royal Albert Hall, London, England.


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Photo by Steve Rapport.
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Cover and page scan.


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