I think Elvis Costello tries too hard. He wants to be Cole Porter and Sam & Dave, he wants to be a studio sophisticate and the world's roughest and toughest live Attraction, he wants to know everything there is to know and then tell you about it.
Snag is, his preferred vocabulary, adopted from his soulful heroes, is limited to words of three syllables and simple emotions, but Costello is forever trying to renovate it with an intelligence sharpened by contact, damaged by complicity.
Costello is dangerous because he knows too much. But a blistering encore of "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" said it all — a stiff shot of R&B was worth more than many of the elaborate arrangements and rearrangements which had filled this hour-and-three-quarters set.
I thought the beginning and especially the end were great, but some ruthless editing was needed for the sagging middle portion. Despite Bruce Thomas' relentless greased-hawser basslines, this was far from vintage night for The Attractions. Pete Thomas, who usually sits on the beat and pummels it till it cries for mercy, was underpowered and sometimes uncertain.
Worse, Steve Nieve, now granted semi-star status, has been issued with miles of rope with which he is gleefully hanging himself. Slicked back and sordid, Nieve scurried round his keyboards like Russ Conway skidding on a bar of soap, spidery fingers quite incapable of resisting yet another embellishment.
Costello packed so much material into the set that it became quite wearying. Every time you took a sip of lager you missed a song. Lots of songs had been drastically remodelled, so that the epic "Man Out Of Time" appeared with a new melody and became Man Out Of Tune, "Charm School" billowed with Afrodiziak's backing voices and forfeited the wan charm of the recording, while "Clowntime Is Over" is now a ballad.
But this was still an Elvis Costello show, bristling with ironies and allusions. The stocky little man in the shapeless crumpled suit is the George Smiley of pop, weaving schemes of clandestine elegance behind his unprepossessing sweaty exterior. With the TKO Horns raging behind him like exorcists looking for Kevin Rowland's ghost, Costello slipped through subtle shifts of decor. We were in a black and white world in February 1960 listening to jazz in a Soho coffee bar, we were in a tack-in-a-basket Mecca in Wigan watching the house band wheeze through its paces before the winning numbers were announced at the end of the night, we were lumping to a soul revue on Chicago's South Side.
Meanwhile, Costello spun his intelligence-gathering operation. He made a remarkably good stab at "Shipbuilding," letting his glottal croak float free among the upper reaches of the melody. "Watch Your Step" was affectingly subdued, while a fragment of "Mystery Dance" flashed straight back to the Sun sessions through a tunnel of reverb. "Everyday I Write The Book," quite possibly his best-ever single, fizzed with knowing mockery.
As they bounced back on for the first encore, there was a split-second of genuine delight in Costello's myopic grin as he barked a "thank you!" to the roaring crowd. Costello onstage is a very different animal from Costello on record, running on instinct while the intellect takes a breather. Tonight, the head got in the way of the "Mastermind" battling with the history of soul music in two minutes flat. Less is often more, and tonight was too much.