Elvis Costello took a soldout crowd on a non-stop flight through his song catalogue last night, singing and joking for nearly two hours without a break. And though he had only a lone pianist to back him up — no girls with sequins, as he mock-ruefully observed — I doubt that any of the passengers felt the trip was less than first class.
When you've written as many good songs in as many styles as Costello has, you can afford to be generous. Last night's show included standards such as "Man Out of Time," "I Don't Want to Go To Chelsea" and "Every Day I Write the Book," as well as four numbers from his recent collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory. There was even a brand-new song, "You Lie Sweetly," written on the road by Costello (lyrics) and Steve Nieve (music) and performed for the first time last night. It was a slow, lilting triple-time number that had the feel of a lullabye, though it was really about the ugly look of morning after the wrong one-night stand.
Hearing such an array of songs, in stripped-down arrangements for guitar and piano, underscored stylistic linkages that might be missed while simply playing through the albums. Much has been made of the contrast between the recent Bacharach collaborations and the hard-edged numbers of Costello's early days, but there was no great gulf separating Alison, in tone and even in some melodic figurations, from the Bacharach material. And Indoor Fireworks took on quite a different flavour with a quiet-strumming, folk-guitar accompaniment.
For "Man Out of Time," Nieve filled up the space around Costello as if to simulate the lush backing of that tune on Imperial Bedroom. But in "Watching the Detectives," the pair (who have been together, by Costello's count, for "247 years") left the reggae-tinged recorded arrangement far behind, rolling through a lengthy instrumental finish that showed how much room there still is to rethink the old songs.
This show was part of the Lonely World tour, though that title seemed a little out of place as Costello relaxed in the warm glow of nearly 3,000 fans. In the latter part of his set, the jokes and puns invaded the songs themselves, as he played an applause game with the crowd during "God's Comic," tossed off some brief impersonations of that other Elvis, and slyly suggested the Almighty dispatch Michael Flatley to some distant reach of Hell.
If there was a single tune that might have been better left untouched, it was "Painted From Memory," but not for any flaw in the writing. Coming almost an hour into the show, its many leaps and high suspended notes seemed to overtax Costello vocally, though his expressive intentions came through clear enough.
The energy and sheer songwriting power behind this show made up for any such lapses from a performer whose wit clearly never sleeps. His funniest turn, in musical terms, came when he made a clean segue from a high-octane version of Pads, Paws and Claws to a few bars of that old Peggy Lee smoker, Fever. Elvis and Peggy Lee — now that would be a partnership for the ages.