There has always been something strangely old-fashioned about Elvis Costello. Even 20 years ago when, with his band the Attractions, he was one of the mainstays of the British pop charts, he never seemed quite at home. He wore big, Buddy Holly-style spectacles and experimented with desperately unfashionable musical genres, like country and western. Meanwhile, his contemporaries, with a few notable exceptions, were either engaging in tuneless and ultimately pointless rebellion, or spending more time in makeup than in the recording studio.
Despite the fact he had all the glamour and panache of a pub piano player, there was a special place for Costello in the heart of every misunderstood teenager. The combination of that emotionally charged voice with the sardonic wit of his often leftist lyrics was simply irresistible. This was no doubt the reason he never made a huge impact in Japan. Trying to appreciate his music without understanding the words is like drinking a margarita without salt--you lose the vital bitterness.
But that was then, and the tirelessly versatile Costello has been through innumerable transformations in the past two decades. There have been unexpected collaborations, perhaps most bizarrely with a classical quartet and more recently with Burt Baccarach on last year's Painted from Memory. To cap it all, he went on to score a mega-hit with a cover version of the Charles Aznavour love song "She" from the romantic movie Notting Hill. Long-time followers began to feel a little nervous at that point. Could it be that our hero was descending from spiky cynicism to bland sentimentality? It began to look that way, when his one-off concert at the rather unfriendly NHK Hall in Tokyo last week was billed as a romantic evening for lovers on the strength of that last hit.
Fans of the old Elvis got off to a good start when he and his pianist, Steve Nieve, appeared almost before we had time to settle into our seats, and burst into an up-tempo number before the stage lights came up. No more of a fashion plate than he was in 1980, Costello's bald pate could be seen gently glimmering in a dim blue light. What followed was a rapid-fire succession of old favorites, heavily sprinkled with new tunes, including "Burnt Sugar," written in collaboration with Carole King and "Oh Well," which is from a film titled Prison Song the singer is to appear in next year.
Inevitably, some of the tunes originally written for a band, did not come off quite as well when performed with only a drum machine to back up the guitar and piano. But there were roars of anticipation from the crowd each time one of the familiar intros started up, and Costello's sure-fire voice ensured that they were never disappointed. The excitement suggested that most members of the audience were familiar with the artist's back catalog, rather than simply having been attracted by the recent lovey-dovey hits.
The pair left the stage after an hour and a half with barely a breath between songs for them or the unusually vocal audience. If the evening had ended at that point, there might have been some disappointed people in the crowd. But we all knew they would never actually get off that lightly. By the time they said their final farewells, Costello had been singing almost continuously for 2½ hours,without missing a note, or losing the distinctive voice that filled the large theater, even without the microphone. Each time the reporters in our section of the theater put away their notebooks ready to leave, and the front row fans started thrusting their bouquets forward, the music started up again.
One of the encores featured a rendition of the Falklands-era lament, "Shipbuilding," that sent shivers down the spine and brought the audience to its feet. In fact, the last hour was spent ticking off titles from a greatest hits selection. Costello changed the mood constantly, jumping from the maudlin but moving, "I Want You," to the perky "Red Shoes," and back again to "That Other Girl."
Perhaps inevitably, given his heritage as the son of a big band singer, Costello has developed into the consummate showman. He drew his audience in with little comic turns and even turned conductor when the crowd took to singing along. After the finger-snapping finale, "Every Day," the crowd spilled out into the chill December night laughing, whistling and humming. Yes, Elvis is older, less angry and even more old-fashioned than ever, but we love him just the same.