Elvis Costello, Royal Albert Hall

theartsdesk.com: Fisun Guner: 30th October 2014

The singer's maturing voice takes his songs to even greater heights

Georgie Fame opened the evening with a five-piece band, including the singer on his old Hammond organ. Favourites, such as “Yeh, Yeh” were belted out to pleasing effect, as well as covers that included Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” (Morrison played the packed-out BluesFest the previous evening). It was a strange, “extended” version that paid homage to a Paul Robeson number – Fame boomed out an African chant that bookended the song. I’m not quite sure the unusual arrangement worked, but the band were superb and Fame’s voice – it’s been exactly 50 years since “Yeh, Yeh was a major hit for him – in surprisingly fine fettle. Sax tenorist Alan Skidmore, who looked as if he might faint, or throw up, or both, after an energetic solo skit, should have got a standing ovation, or maybe a respirator.

Fame is an engaging raconteur with a laid-back style that’s warm and intimate, even in a venue such as the Royal Albert Hall. But when Elvis Costello bounded onto the stage, wearing his fancy purple shoes (more of which later) and the two dueted on a Mose Allison number, an injection of that old familiar, nervy Costello-energy fired things up a bit.

Costello had invited his old pal Fame, but Costello’s musical entourage during his own set after the interval, was somewhat slimmer. However, there was no lost to the songs, and it only added to the intimate sense of occasion. Most of the set would have been familiar to anyone who’s a fan of Costello’s early hits, and it was more than a nice surprise to find him accompanied by Steve Nieve, his bandmate from the earliest days of The Attractions. Nieve’s thrilling arrangement for “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” was one of the evening’s stand-out highlights, with Nieve trilling and pounding the piano keys to menacing and noir-ish effect, which made it sound a bit like Godley and Creme’s “Under Your Thumb”. Who’d have thought? It was impressive stuff. And if that didn’t quite get the audience going, “Watching the Detective”,  “Oliver’s Army,” and the jagged briliance of "Pills and Soap", surely did.

Nieve, who only stuck around for the first half, didn’t say a word – he hardly lifted his head from the keyboard, in fact, though an energetic solo spot on a harmonica got a thunderous and deserved round of applause. But Costello punctuated his songs with stories and anecdotes throughout. These grew more expansive as the evening wore on. His purple shoes, by the way, were bought in Hamburg, as he was casually passing, he said, through the Reeperbahn, causing a few sniggers. Costello has an incredibly sharp wit, but it was his late father, musician Ross McManus, that mostly engaged him last night, with warm reminiscences spiked with wry humour.

As the evening drew to a close we were rewarded with a spine-tingling “Shipbuilding”, and Costello even sang a number unmic’d after the sound system was turned off  for the night. Costello was clearly having a ball, and wasn’t in a rush to leave.

If memory serves me well, I last saw Costello about 8 or 10 years ago, at the Royal Festival Hall. Then, his voice had never sounded better – richer, more expressive, than it had ever been, and that husky richness and sheer range almost took me by surprise. He’s now 60, but the expressive power of his voice takes these songs to even greater heights.