Elvis Costello has had to adjust with age. Known for his New Wave snarl, as the years have passed he has changed his tune significantly, working with everyone from Allen Toussaint to the Brodksy Quartet. Therefore, seeing him solo, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Normally he is backed up by a band of some description, be it the Attractions, the Imposters, the Confederates, or any number of other groups, and much of his work seems dependent on his backing. Indeed, one of his stand-out albums, This Year’s Model, is notable for its incredible drumming, basswork, keyboards… in short, everything that Costello didn’t have when he came to the New Theatre.
However, seated among one of the most middle-class audiences of my life, it is clear that Costello knows how to play to his strengths. For starters, he ignored large sections of his back-catalogue, including the entirety of This Year’s Model. Armed with an array of guitars, he has perfected his troubadour act, impishly bouncing around the stage, tilting his hat, taking about twenty bows, the whole bit. More importantly though, his stripped down set reveals the strength of his songwriting, with opener ‘Red Shoes’ rendered in a much more delicate manner than on his seminal debut My Aim Is True. Already poignant songs such as ‘Alison’ and ‘Either Side Of The Same Town’ become even sadder, and playful songs like ‘Sulphur to Sugarcane’ become more fun. His father was a big band leader, and his influence becomes more apparent on Costello’s performances as he grows older – at one point he introduces a ‘rock song’, before qualifying it as what would be a rock song ‘in the twenties’, unplugging his acoustic and performing ‘Slow Drag With Josephine’ without any amplification whatsoever. There was even a whistling solo.
But while Costello could have kept the whole show at the same comfortable and homely tone, he did reveal some of the edge which defined his early career. The very next song he even plugged in his electric (*gasps*) guitar to play breakthrough single ‘Watching The Detectives’, and rediscovers his snarl, accompanied by an oppressive, distorted, and effects-laden guitar line. It nearly collapsed underneath its own weight as Costello arguably had a bit too much fun with his delay pedal, but given how easily he could have impishly bounced through his whole set, a touch of the more ambitious was certainly welcome. It’s what sets him apart from other singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars. Of which it’s fair to say there are a few.