What I'd hoped, maybe even expected, to be a warm, fun-filled trumpeting of the delights of English eccentricity turned out to be, for the most part, little more than a narrow celebration of mutual hipness, the warmth forced and the fun doubtful.
Ian Dury aside, Stiff's Greatest Stiffs no more convinced me than they disappointed the audience.
First on the boards was Nick Lowe but, because of the vagaries of London Transport, I missed him and my first sight of a live Stiff was the decidedly unmelodic Wreckless Eric. The only notable points in his seemingly interminable set were the simplicity of Denise's bass work, Davey Payne's raucous sax and Eric's one justifiable claim to a place on the stage, his single "Whole Wide World" — and even that went on so long, it started to sound like the band were bent on becoming an eighth grade Cream.
Perhaps excuses could be made for him because of the horrific screechy and scratchy sound but I doubt it. He sounded as if he liked it that way.
Elvis Costello is certainly no wreckless quarter talent but he seemed so determined to reinforce his image as the latest moody enigma that he mostly resembled a puppet pulling his own strings ... tentatively. And we all know what happened to Pinocchio.
He is undoubtedly a fine songwriter (although I think other people could do his songs better justice) but his attempts to move beyond merely lecturing the audience and attempt to engage their emotions by communication with them were, depending on your viewpoint, embarassing or laughable. Pressing the flesh with the audience requires a little more audacity then a few very careful steps from the stage. Elvis has presumable learned from Joe Strummer how to kneel with his guitar and pray to his fold-back. He ought to watch Joe dive on to the audience, adding a real element of danger and tension, before he tries 'walking on the water' again.
I've never been a great Dury fan and hadn't seen him perform since the Kilburns and accordingly reckoned he'd be no more than diverting. He was so rivetting that I've been playing New Boots and Panties almost constantly in the two days since the Lyceum show.
Everyone knows that comparisons are jive but if I wanted to pigeon-hole Ian, I'd place him as an English combination of Randy Newman and Woody Allen. His songs are text-book examples of wit, insight and compassion. His tunes (and his excellent band) are supple, simple and subtle. His stage-craft is an original mixture of approved school teacher and Max Miller.
If it wasn't for his obvious lack of appeal to the teen market, I'd say he was the complete artist. He only faltered once — when for the encore, a reprise of "Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll," he brought on every Stiff igger that could still stand. They looked like so many jealous pigs gobbling at the trough of his talent.
As for the rest, it was a case of the audience allowing themselves to be mercilessly duped in their starch for hip credibility. If it's a Stiff, at least it'll impress your neighbours.