I can claim no cold critical objectivity in respect of the work of Elvis Costello.
I own at least 20 of his albums, and have seen him play at least half a dozen times over the years – first in 1983 at the old Cardiff Top Rank, and most recently five years ago, when he brought his game-show style Spinning Songbook to St David’s Hall. It was only financial embarrassment which prevented me from booking up immediately when it was announced that he would be playing on the final night of the Wales Millennium Centre’s 2018 Festival of Voice.
Thus, when the call came at short notice to review the gig, I leapt at the opportunity, despite the tempting alternative of World Cup action featuring Brazil v Switzerland. In fact, as a football fan, Costello has been known to delay going onstage when his team, Liverpool, have been playing – one might speculate that his slight tardiness at the Donald Gordon Theatre could be explained by his celebrating former Reds striker Coutinho’s spectacular goal.
When the show began (only a few minutes behind schedule, to be fair), it was with a tune with which only the most faithful of devotees (I failed the test) will have been familiar – Wonder Womanfrom Elvis’s 2006 project with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, The River In Reverse. Unlike other acts at the Festival, however, who chose to experiment with their song choices, Costello’s set was one which celebrated both his longevity as an artist (he is approaching his 64th birthday), and the upbeat (musically at least) and pop-history-literate nature of his oeuvre.
Having said that, this was a selection of songs aimed at pleasing fans rather than casual observers. Hence the hard-edged version of Girls Talk(a song which he gifted to Cardiff’s own Dave Edmunds in 1979), and the deep soul arrangement of Tears Before Bedtime, from 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, which he introduced with reference to the decades of heartbreak clearly etched on the faces of audience-members.
His more recent work was represented by the silky-smooth You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way, from the soundtrack to last year’s tragi-romance about Gloria Grahame, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. The first hour or so of the show, however, peaked with an epic Every Day I Write The Book, during which he name-checked his band, The Imposters:- the miraculous “Professor” Steve Nieve with his array of keyboards, ever-athletic drummer Pete Thomas (both of whom have been on board since the late 1970s), and relative newcomer (from 2001 onwards) Davey Faragher on bass; this section culminating with classic retro-rocker Pump It Up.
After a brief interval, the tone became more reflective, beginning with a minimalist treatment of 1977’s tenderly regretful Alison, performed as an intimate trio with impressive backing vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, and continuing with a sequence of duets with Nieve, including Accidents Will Happen, Oliver’s Army(with the infamous, racially offensive couplet replaced), the deeply moving ode My Three Sons, and his cover of Charles Aznavour’s Shewhich, ironically (Costello being one of the great songwriters of his era) received the most cheers on the night from the packed auditorium.
The full band returned for a climactic suite of old but somehow topical songs – Nick Lowe’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, Waiting For The End Of The World, and the Oswald Mosley-themed Less Than Zero, before bowing out with an epic take on the chillingly obsessive I Want You.
The Costello voice was as soulful and cutting as ever, that vibrato still seductive. And marriage to an acclaimed jazz musician seems to have upped his guitar-solo game – for a man who once dubbed himself “Little Hands Of Concrete”, Elvis’s playing verged on the virtuosic.
Following a two-hour show covering a forty-plus-year career, fans will inevitably complain about the omission of personal favourites; I suspect, however, that on such an emotional night, Indoor Fireworksor God Give Me Strength(a Burt Bacharach co-write) might just have been too much to handle.
This Costello show was a fitting, and suitably euphoric end to a festival which has foregrounded artists who are committed, idiosyncratic and innovative.
Sara Robinson’s review: Elvis Costello, Festival of Voice, Cardiff