So consummate a performer is Elvis Costello nowadays that his between-song patter comes across as a little smarmy, reminding us his transition from bile-gargling punk poet to balladeering Brill Building craftsman has been effected without irony, without inverted commas, Son of Joe Loss' singer? Sure, that makes sense. He seems so untortured, smooth and mature that it's easy to grasp why he's so madly prolific.
I stand alone perhaps in preferring the second half of his career to the first, in admiring the skill of the adult to the will of the geek. Tonight, he applies no little imagination to the "songs we wrote when we were young and impetuous". deconstructing many old crowd-pleasers while crooning more recent material with laconic grace. It's a kind of "unplugged" deal, the singer accompanied only by his guitar and Steve Nieve's piano. Even with so few frills, a marathon set almost — almost — stays interesting throughout.
Though Nieve is clearly adored by the (mid-life) audience, and respected by Costello, his meretricious indulgences on the piano are intensely irritating, approaching farcical. Apart from the fact that his joanna sounds fucking horrible, his florid showing-off interrupts the flawless flow of the voice and words. Obviously, then, the half-dozen songs from Painted From Memory don't quite live up to themselves. Nieve trowelling through the pregnant pauses. Costello however sings superbly, with utter confidence: I can never understand why some say he's not a "real" crooner. There's enough gravel and grease in his voice tonight to raise the Sinatra. Announcing that this is an "annual melancholics' convention," he radically yet tenderly reinvents "This Year's Girl," "Girls Talk," "Accidents Will Happen" (which drifts teasingly into "24 Hours From Tulsa"), and "Chelsea." "Indoor Fireworks" is plaintive, "All This Useless Beauty" doomed and grand.
During "God's Comic", he begins a dialogue between The Lord and "the other Elvis", wherein Presley bemoans dying before he got the chance to sing songs like "Rio," "Heart Of Glass" and "The Drugs Don't Work." Not sure what Costello's point is here, hut it's worth it to hear him briefly "do" The Verve. Nieve, thankfully, allows him a solo segment, during which he performs, in full, "Jackie Wilson Said", which is particularly weird given that Kevin Rowland's sitting next to me.
So stripped and subtle is tonight's ethos (the piano aside), that a song's halfway through, and sounding beautiful, before you realise it's "Good Year For The Roses." Despite a slightly musty air of effortless veteran professionalism, Costello continues to place his past in the blender and his present on a roulette wheel. An institution, then, but one with plenty of intriguing follies in its gardens.