Royal Albert Hall, London
Simon Price on pop: Elvis Costello's army bares its soul once more
The old man of New Wave leaves his set list to luck these days, and the wheel of fate turns up some gems
Saturday 08 June 2013
As a stand-up comedian, Elvis Costello makes an excellent singer-songwriter. Minutes into the show, Costello replaces his trilby with a topper, brandishes a silver-capped cane and adopts a persona somewhere between Bruce Forsyth on The Generation Game and a circus ringmaster, complete with corny American accent. A natural comic he ain't. But you warm to him for trying.
The set-up of the 13 Revolvers tour is familiar. On a set that's half funfair sideshow and half Sixties supper-club, the titles of approximately 40 Costello songs are painted on a wheel of fortune, spun by audience members, to ensure that every show is different. It also allows for unscripted chortles, like the wisecrack from a superfan called Ant, stood next to his hero: "It's the Ant & Dec Show …."
As a rapid-fire format for Costello and his Imposters – bassist Davey Faragher plus Attractions stalwarts Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve (who absconds in the encores to play the Hall's massive organ) – to showcase his back-catalogue, it's fine. And it is mostly back-cat: Costello's upcoming album with The Roots can wait.
It opens with his cover of Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down". It's followed by "High Fidelity" whose Supremes-referencing first words are "Some things you never get used to". Which establishes Costello's credentials as a soul fan, if not quite a soul man. Regardless of the strength of his voice, which he demonstrates unamplified off-mic, its tone is too adenoidal for that.
There comes a day in everyone's life where they're grown-up enough to get Elvis Costello, and I passed it some time ago. At 13, his pedal steel-drenched cover of George Jones's "Good Year For The Roses" was insufferably schmaltzy, but now it's almost painfully close to the bone. Funny, that.
"Oliver's Army", though, is the big one. When you're a child, it's just a jolly romping pop melody. Then you figure out it's one of the most chilling political pop songs of all time. Its power is the sound of measured anger, articulated with restraint. Nowadays, sneaking a song about The Troubles, complete with the provocatively loaded phrase "white nigger" to No 2 in the charts, seems impossibly audacious. Performed half-quiet half-loud, it's requested tonight by a woman whose father is dying of cancer. Costello agrees immediately.
It's not the only moving moment: it's touching to hear the entire Albert Hall singing "Alison, I know this world is killing you …" Nor is it the only late Seventies smash. It's commonplace to credit The Clash with pioneering the rock-reggae cross-over, but nearly all the old punks had a try, not least Costello, whose "Watching The Detectives" and "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" are immaculate exercises in paranoiac reggae-noir.
"Some people won't like this …", he apologises before a track which was namechecked almost as often as "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" this April. "But as long as there are still people about who believe the things she believed, and are doing the things she did, we can keep singing this song". The song is "Tramp The Dirt Down". And it's not even the night's most powerful anti-Thatcher song. That would be the haunting, Falklands-inspired "Shipbuilding", which recently merited its own Radio 4 documentary.
An even more potent attack on Conservative values, "Pills And Soap", didn't make the wheel. And another personal favourite, "Every Day I Write The Book", refused to get picked. But you can't have everything. In the words of Steven Wright – unlike Costello, a proper comedian – where would you put it?
The nomenclature of modern musical microgenres is an inexact science. Toro Y Moi (Concorde 2, Brighton ***) – the stage name of South Carolina artist-producer Chazwick Bradley Bundick – is termed a "chillwave" act, but as he and his band delve into their three albums to date, you don't need to be schooled in musical history to have other styles springing to mind. Mainly, "jazz-funk".
For all the 21st century beats, his mellifluous suspended and diminished chords recall Gregg Diamond and Azymuth as much as any contemporary act. The LED-mimicking light show adds to the impression that you're at home, grooving to Bundick's intelligent, tasteful sounds on your hi-fi. Which might, frankly, be a better way to spend your time.
Meltdown, this year curated by Yoko Ono, begins its nine-day run at the Southbank Centre in London with Yoko's own Plastic Ono Band (Fri), Siouxsie Sioux (Sat), and Peaches presenting Ono's performance art show Cut Piece (Sun 16). Meanwhile, John Lydon's post-punk legends Public Image Ltd play the Academy, Oxford; and the Academy, Leicester (Mon).
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