He made a brave start, singing accompanied only by piano. Instant flash: Elvis goes Elton? No. His essential hardness and bite was still there, but the open setting allowed him to pursue and develop a sinuous melody expressing the tender tough side of his nature without going sloppy on us.
It seemed to be called "Luxemburg" and amid the lyrical convolutions it said things like "Shot with his own gun / Now daddy's keeping mum... caught by an emotional ricochet" — ultra Elvis phrases though I can't say I understood it at this first hearing. Meanwhile, Steve Nieve appeared and played beautifully, striking dramatic obliques and hammered chords around the vocal instead of wrapping it in fluffy prettiness.
Ahah, I thought. But then again, ohoh. Because after the appetite-whetting not a lot more fun was had in seat C13 of the Grand Circle. I specify the position because the main problem was the sound: punters and pundits in other parts of the Rainbow may well have heard a completely different concert and gone home foaming at the mouth with appreciation rather than the groans and moans I was emitting.
For the next hour Elvis sped through more than 20 songs I was overwhelmed by Pete Thomas's drums. Worse, it wasn't the sharp crack of the snare which would at least have kicked the tempo into my skull, it was the dull, flabby boom of the tom-toms which dominated rendering much of what I heard into an impression of a train coming at me down a long tunnel. The result was that almost anything up-tempo was ruined, only the quieter and more spacious items surviving.
So Steve Nieve, who I believe continued to play his keyboards outstandingly, was rarely heard from again. Old favourites like "The Beat," "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," "Accidents Will Happen," "Radio Radio," "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and "Pump It Up" were trashed like so much refuse in the dumper of bedlam noise, along with a couple of his new pieces such as "From A Whisper To A Scream." I really did try to listen to what was going on in all this chaos and I couldn't with any conviction blame the band even one per cent. The input I could see bore no relation at all to the output I was hearing.
The only relief came from their less frantic pieces, giving the strong and probably false impression that Elvis's future lies with the more considered approach — the evidence was persuasive, but totally unbalanced by the aural problems. Half a minute of subtle, open rhythm variations in the middle of "Watching The Detectives" were the highlight of the night, the band getting through to express itself as a sympatico quartet at last. The melifluous melodies of "Oliver's Army" and "Alison" were played as encores and renewed their impact as outbursts of joy amid all the Costello snappishness (pardon me if that makes a nonsense of the meaning of "Oliver's Army," but that's the feeling it gives me).
Also, mercifully, several more of his post-Get Happy compositions did make it. The tongue-twisting "Lovers Walk" stirred it up with Elvis pouting and moody rock'n'rolling and superb drum-driving (cleaned up for three minutes somehow). "You'll Never Be A Man" had that undertone of power and resolute seriousness typical of the way Costello can persuade a mass audience into accepting weighty music. "Clubland" hinted at classic possibilities of wider scope: that Springsteen overreaching aspiration of taking on a whole way of life and winning — particularising, generalising and finally delivering it just the way it is (I know, a very exaggerated claim on one listen. Perhaps it's only a good tune.).
This review is no generalisation though. It was a lousy concert from seat C13, but that's not to say this is the end of Elvis Costello as we know it. I'm only sorry that the first time I've seen him live was such a non-event.