IN praise of Elvis Costello, the thinking person's choice of rock idol

The Herald Scotland: Keith Bruce: 16th July 2016

There are few constants in life, as the fluctuating state of the administration of these fair isles might lately have been designed to illustrate, but my devotion to the work of Elvis Costello is one. From the first time I heard his music, probably played by John Peel on the wireless, certainly purchased on vinyl from his earliest releases, but most heart-grabbingly passionately since I first saw him play live with The Attractions – at the Satellite City club upstairs at Glasgow's legendary Apollo, a matter of yards from where I type this, on my father's birthday in 1978 – there has been no serious pretender to the crown of My Favourite Artist.

For a very long time this was a somewhat specialist taste. In the great musician-chewing machine of rock and pop, Costello's fortunes ebbed and waned. The early, sneering New Wave band leader rose to the top of the charts with Oliver's Army, a song few who bought it understood, but transformed into a chart-topper by the inspired Abba-pilfering of his keyboard player Steve Nieve, on the recording. Unlike many from the punk and post-punk era, however, Costello proved an insatiably curious and experimental musician, with a range that defied description, but – crucially – always sounds unmistakably like him. He plundered sixties soul in 1980, touring his Get Happy! album to forgotten dance halls like Dunfermline's Kinema and the Regal Suite in West Calder, and went to Nashville to record a country record, Almost Blue. He discovered classical music attending recitals by soprano Cecilia Bartoli and the Brodsky Quartet playing Shostakovich, and taught himself to read and write music so that he could productively collaborate with musicians with conservatoire – rather than pub-rock – training. An exhaustive list of Costello's collaborations would be a challenge to compile, but it would include successful songwriting partnerships with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint, and recording with soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and James Burton, who played guitar for another Elvis, and the Metropole Orkest from the Netherlands and the London Symphony Orchestra. Without leaving Scotland it has been possible to see him perform in the company of the RSNO and the Brodsky Quartet as well as with a list of backing groups, in a duo with Naive and as a captivatingly charming solo singer and raconteur.

I could not have known, 40 years ago, that Costello would prove such a rewarding choice. My own musical interests have ranged far and wide but there is little of it that cannot boast a Costello interface somewhere, which is downright strange when you think of it. Even weirder is that I am far from alone. This week I saw him revisit the uncomplicated four-piece rock'n'roll set up of those early years in the ideal surroundings of Glasgow's Barrowland Ballroom. I did not know everyone there, but I knew a quite a few folk in the hall. I went with family (nephew's birthday this time – he was brought up in the faith) and met close friends and more casual acquaintances. I recognised others I did not have a chance to speak to. I don't know the guy who always shouts for Leon Payne's Psycho, but he was there. I felt part of a community as I rarely do at shows these days, but which was what persuaded me that going to gigs was a fine thing to do as a teenager.

There have been, and will be, many flashier performances to see this year, but few artists (and I include many much more famous names) will be able to draw on such a rewarding hinterland and astonishingly varied career. Elvis Costello is a remarkable chap and he can't come back to see us again soon enough.