Sometimes a hush is more impactful than a crash and a bang. Surely, the crowd of the Queen Elizabeth theatre was excited to see the living legend Elvis Costello perform, but when his songs began the air was reverential rather than raucous. How can you be anything but in awe when a man, whose career has spanned almost 50 years and dozens of albums, graces your presence with his music? Most musicians at this point in their career would revel in being able to whip their crowd into a frenzy with their hits, but Mr. Costello had a different aim altogether. At one point he let the crowd know, “We’re not on a golden oldies tour. We are on a summer vacation from ourselves.” Hence the moderately toned-down vibe to his songs, especially his opener Greenshirt. Here are not simply rockstars resting on their laurels, but artists who want to create something new. Where others may revert to autopilot, they chose to reinvent.
This all being said, it is not as if the energy with which each of these songs was lacking. Costello’s backing band, The Imposters, infused everything with a rich, joyful ambience. The guitar work of Charlie Sexton was sublime. He has a great distorted tone that adds flavour to all of Costello’s work. The rhythm section of The Imposters, mainly Dave Faragher on bass and Pete Thomas on drums, lay the groundwork for each song. They are strong and commanding throughout. It is, however, Steve Nieve’s work on all manner of keys that really help the instrumentals soar. His playing is fun and bright, whether it is on an electrifying synth solo, or backing a ballad, there is an undeniable energy that comes at the hands of this rock veteran.
All of this does not take away from the star himself, Elvis Costello. There is a humility and joy that he brings to the stage. Yes, his name is at the top of the marquee, but it never seems to be what he cares about. As cliche as it sounds, he is clearly all about the music. You can hear it in his revelry at hearing Springsteen for the first time and how “everything Bruce wrote about was magical… [so] I wrote this song as a shameless copy of [him],” before launching into Radio, Radio. You can also hear it in his genre hopping. The influences and homages emanate throughout his show. From mid 70’s punk to the music of ABBA, his love of music in all its forms was the through-line of the show.
Yet it would mean nothing, if not for the actual musicality of the man. Costello is lively, and his guitar work is as jubilant as ever. His voice is just the right amount of gravel. It shows the sheer mileage that he has under his belt but does not buckle under the pressure. In this age of over production and reliance on techniques like autotune, it is great to just hear a real, authentic voice. It was hard not to feel that this is the real jewel of a Costello show: no pretence, just authentic storytelling and song writing. This is why his name carries such a venerated weight, and that is what will stay with you as leave his show.