Through My Ears Only: Fame & Costello at the Royal Albert Hall

Mellotone70Up: John Harvey: 30th October 2014

Talking about Georgie Fame last night, on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, Elvis Costello bemoaned the fact that he’d been too young to sneak into the Flamingo back in the 60s and see Fame and his band, the Blue Flames, in their pomp and early prime. Not so, yours truly, when trips up to Soho from New Cross were a not infrequent feature of Goldsmith’s College student life.

Since those early, heady days I’ve had the good fortune to see Georgie on a number of occasions, his Hammond Organ and Mose Alison-influenced vocals always rounded out by a bunch of hard-blowing jazzmen – most recently – and that’s as recent as last night – Alan Skidmore on tenor, Guy Barker on trumpet and Anthony Kerr on vibes. With only his white hair and a certain hesitancy of movement testifying to his 70-plus years, he was on fine form, his voice surprisingly accurate and strong as he swung through a selection of blues-based numbers, deftly interspersed with an old hit or two and an extended version of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’, strangely but effectively prefaced by an upbeat adaptation of a Paul Robeson number from Sanders of the River. When Elvis Costello, who was playing the second half, came on towards the end of the set to take the vocals on ‘Point of No Return’, it seemed the only way was up.

How wrong!

Costello I’ve also seen on a number of occasions and venues and in various settings: with the Attractions and solo; dueting with Bill Frisell; fronting a big band and singing with a string quartet. Always interesting; a terrific songwriter, a fine performer. Watching him last night, however, in front of a packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall, was a bit like watching a man drowning on dry land.

The first numbers, some old, some more recent, featured new arrangements by long-time partner and keyboard player, Steve Nieve, and seemed designed to show off Nieve’s florid and bombastic technique at the expense of both Costello’s voice and the actual songs. When Nieve departed, however, leaving Costello to accompany himself on various guitars, little improved. I quite understand that when you tour as much as Costello does, unless you’re to become a living waxwork of yourself, it’s important to rethink the material, present in different ways – it’s what Dylan has been doing, with wayward success, for years – and much as I appreciate that, few of these reworkings – with ‘Every Day I Write the Book’ a possible exception – added anything to the originals. Quite the opposite. And what is he doing with his voice? There’s an alarming tendency to shout into the mike, as if wanting to batter the audience into acceptance or submission, but the danger is that he comes across like an opera singer having a seriously bad day.

There was one blissfully quiet spell in which Costello took time off from striding – I almost said posturing – around the stage and sat down down to play a rather charming version of ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ and reminisce about his old man, but this, and a duet with the returning Georgie Fame, were about as relaxed as he got. Perhaps he was thrown by the all-too-evident lack of response from the audience (aside from a couple of women up on their feet and dancing, responding, presumably, to something different playing inside their heads) and he couldn’t have failed to notice the small but steady stream of people getting up from their seats and leaving – and not just because they had to catch an early train.

A bad night finished with an ill-judged attempt to serenade the Hall without the use of amplification, matched by the bewildered refusal of most of the audience to sing along.

Sad. Sad and bad. A shame.