The Telegraph: Neil McCormick: 5th June, 2013. Photo: Brian Rasic
The celebrated singer-songwriter delivered an angry, emotional, wild and wayward 28-song set that was more than any fan could reasonably ask for, says Neil McCormick.
Margaret Thatcher may have been laid to rest just a few weeks ago, but that hasn’t silenced her musical tormentor-in-chief. It was late in an extraordinary, two-and-a-half hour set when Elvis Costello followed his beautifully crooned Falkland war lament Shipbuilding by picking up an acoustic guitar and announcing, “This is a song I didn’t imagine I would be singing no more.”
There was a tangible gasp in the Royal Albert Hall, as if somehow the venerable establishment connotations of the setting made what was being presented almost sacrilegious, yet there was also a surge of righteous delight as Costello delivered an immensely powerful rendition of Tramp The Dirt Down, his notorious anti-Thatcher folk ballad from 1988. His introductory remarks, in which he insisted he would play his protest song as long “as there are people still abroad who believe what she believed and act upon it” gave the moment a context that was neither bitter nor perversely triumphalist, more like the singing of a cherished anthem of shared values from a bygone era.
It was just one extraordinary moment among many, in a celebratory, comical, angry, emotional, wild and wayward 28-song set that delivered more than any fan could reasonably ask for. There is a gimmicky conceit to the set-up, The Spectacular Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, reviving the vaudevillian elements of a show first presented in 2011, with caged dancers, a hostess and a huge, colourful fairground wheel of fortune containing song names and set themes chosen via spins from members of the audience.
You can understand the appeal of this random selection process to an artist as maverick in his musical tastes and with as many great songs to his credit as Costello, although it risks seeming disjointed in abandoning the performer’s own sense of narrative. It is a long way from the kind of sharp attack that marked out Costello in his earliest incarnations, yet the benefit is a sense of improvisational spontaneity. There is a jazz-punk aspect to The Imposters: they are not afraid of getting wonky and dirty, attacking songs with irreverent energy and dragging them in all kinds of different (and not always compatible) directions, building to a dubby romp through Watching The Detectives that effectively marked the end of the Spinning Songbook game.
It was as if Costello had just been softening up his audience, opening us to expect anything. Returning for encores, the band was on fire, with Costello calling out song after song as the mood took him, tearing into old favourites such as Lipstick Vogue, Alison, Red Shoes and Less Than Zero as if he wanted to blow the place down. It was utterly electrifying and alive to the moment, master musicians and a genius band leader putting absolutely everything into songs written to the highest levels of lyrical and melodic ingenuity.
By the time Steve Naïve concluded a storming version of What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding by dashing behind the stage to play the Royal Albert Hall’s house organ, big notes resonating through the enraptured crowd, all I can really say is you had to be there. And that, after all, is what live music is really about.