Louder Than War: Steve Swift: 21st July 2014.
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester – 14 July 2014
Kew Gardens, London – 16 July 2104
Over two very different shows Elvis Costello pushed his ambitious boundaries even further, Steve Swift was witness to an artist who refuses to stand still.
“Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album”. I was reminded of Elvis Costello’s description of Goodbye Cruel World as he eased into a charged version of Love Field (a track from it) at Kew last Wednesday and which contains the line “you yield with your lips still sealed”. Those seven words go some way towards explaining my admiration for him, admiration that regularly spills into obsession.
This is a solo tour on which he’s roamed free form through his back catalogue, introduced new songs, played others for the first time in years and dissected and re-arranged many of his hits so that they sound like they were written yesterday.
But first, a bit of context. I was 16 in 1976. A middle class punk, I followed The Damned around northern England for a week, saw most of the bands at the forefront of the movement and although I never got to see the Pistols, my life changed as I feasted on the attitude and the music. Released the day before my 17th birthday, Costello’s first album made a huge impression. Short, snappy songs with immediate hooks and biting, political lyrics connected immediately. The image on the cover – Buddy Holly specs, knot knees, turn-ups – was strangely empowering.
Seeing him on the first Stiffs tour in September 1977 was the point at which I turned away from the 1,2,3,4 thrash of punk rock to the more crafted form of the genre that was beginning to emerge. As 77 merged into 78 and the likes of Talking Heads, Wire and Television came along, Costello’s second LP, This Year’s Model, surpassed anything I’d ever heard before. I knew then that there was a mind better than my own at work here, and that he was articulating what I was feeling through songs that made my heart beat faster.
So, over the years I’ve stayed faithful, despite the missteps like Goodbye Cruel World and the occasionally challenging collaboration, small prices to pay for originality and re-invention. I’m eternally grateful to him for introducing me to the work of George Jones as far back as 1981 and even with a string quartet in an opulent concert hall, the Elvis you get is still the Elvis who shared spit with Ian Dury at the mic stand in September 77.
The shows I saw last week were very different. The Bridgewater Hall’s polite audience took time to get going, but when it did was rewarded with an immense 155 minute master class. The Holy Grail for Costello fiends – Dr Luther’s Assistant - was played for the first time since 1977 and more obscure songs like Mouth Almighty and Town Crier, even though they tested the patience of the more casual observers around us, marked this out as a special show. Those who left at the end of the main set missed a further 70 minutes of encores.
A deconstructed ten minute Watching The Detectives displayed Costello’s skills with pedals and loops. The familiar riff was sent into orbit to become occasionally grounded in vague reggae discordance – clearly improvised and with an energy consistent with the snarl and venom of the original.
As you’d expect from the mouth almighty, Elvis likes to chat. The glimpses he offers into his musical apprenticeship illustrate how he is humbled to have come from a traditional musical lineage even though his reputation is as the rebellious, angry outsider. He’s writing songs again with Burt Bacharach (He’s Given Me Things is showcased) he plays Veronica (co-written with Paul McCartney) and Jimmie Standing In The Rain climaxes with an unamplified, goose-bumping Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
Kew Gardens two days later is a different experience. We have the best seats in the house at what can only be described as a garden party. The venue is just a short distance from Costello’s family home in Twickenham and there’s a homecoming feel to the whole event, underlined by the presence on the support bill of the MacManus Brothers - two of his younger brothers and established musicians in their own right.
It’s more of a greatest hits set, with the odd curve ball. As in Manchester he plays a new song – The Last Year Of My Youth – a mordant reflection on ageing and responsibility and a stripped down Everyday I Write The Book, a million miles away from the familiar, ‘shiny pop’ version and which, I’m guessing, allows the nimble lyrics (written “in ten minutes”) to be heard by many for the first time.
Rightly so, the song Shipbuilding has acquired mythical status. An oblique lyric about how working class communities benefit from capitalist wars, Costello plays it here on the organ, the occasional stabs just holding the song together, the power emanating from the fractured voice. To my ears, the crowd is silent but, typically, the song ends in a minor chord squall, just so we don’t get too comfortable.
My Brave Face – written with McCartney for his album Flowers In The Dirt, a cover of Little Feat’s Long Distance Love plus a frenetic run through of the greatest hits are reeled off with his brothers and the ultra-talented Larkin Poe before a spectacular fireworks display explodes mid-way through (What’s So Funny) ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding.
Four songs before the pyrotechnics, the subversive and anti-romantic Love Field has made this a very special night. It’s a song that crystallises my obsession with Elvis Costello – what he leaves unsaid, the thoughts he provokes, the grey areas that only a skilled songwriter (or poet) is able to explore.