I can't believe I'm seeing this. Can this really be Elvis Costello, the manic, mayhem merchant who snarled and spat in the Glasgow Apollo in 1978, was nervous but cool solo at the Edinburgh Playhouse in 1985 and completely bananas last year at the same venue? Why is he tap dancing? Why is he doing children's concerts, getting them to shout "Miaow" at him during "Leave My Kitten Alone"? Why does he keep saying things like "sing along if you know the chorus" without a trace of irony? You'd almost think he was enjoying himself.
Britain's most northerly folk festival erupts in dozens of country halls and other tiny venues throughout the 100-odd bits of rock which make the Shetland Islands. Over four days, Costello played at nine events, ranging from an aptly hungover one-song set of "The Big Light" just after he got off the boat, to a full hour at Lerwick's Garrison Theatre on Friday night.
The songbook for the weekend varied, but was based solidly on new songs like "Let Him Dangle," a stark anti-hanging song dealing with the Craig/Bentley case, the astonishing "Comical Priest" with its jagged insights into plastic religiosity and "Another King's Shilling," a very moving tale of departure to war, which he described as a sequel to "Shipbuilding."
Among all these were the reworked "New Amsterdam" incorporating "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," "Shipbuilding" itself and a host of others.
The Friday gig in Lerwick illustrated the strangeness of the whole event. Preceded by a mass of local fiddlers, Costello came on and shook the crammed, tiny theatre with an almost overwhelming amount of charisma. We're talking showmanship here, a certainty and sureness in performance which brooked no obstacle. Not even the many elderly locals there to see Irish fiddle legend Sean McGuire. The jokes, the timing, the "I looked like Johnny Cash... I looked like his sock" intro to "The Big Light," the shifts in mood from humour to political comment... it was impeccable. Then, of course, the Big Surprise. On he comes for the vociferously demanded encore. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce... Mr Nick Lowe!" Dear God, what's he doing here? It turns out auld Nick flew in for the day just to play one song with Elv. And it's their joint classic, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding." Everlies, eat your hearts out. The place just about explodes.
What else can I tell you? About Costello's three gigs in one night on Sunday? About him accompanying a local country singer at a guitar workshop? It would be unfair not to mention some of the other artists — the folk roots experimentation and fire of Newcastle's Spektacle Cases, ex-Fairporter Simon Nicol's relaxed virtuosity. Ashley Hutchings of The Albion Band's patronising attitude to punters ("oh look — they're wearing modern clothes") and the astonishing Sean McGuire's incandescent fiddle playing.
The weather was good too. A singer nearly gave birth on stage. A concert ground to a halt because the hall's electricity meter ran out of 50 pence pieces. Punks slam danced to acoustic Costello. You really should have been there.