POP MUSIC / Elvis, and other attractions: He was slow to mention the band, but his aim's still true: Jasper Rees on Elvis Costello in concert at the Royal Albert Hall

Click to follow
Three songs from the end of a show lasting two and a quarter hours, Elvis Costello acknowledged the Attractions behind him. 'It's been many years since the gentlemen and I stood before you,' he advised upon re-entering for a third encore after a solid interpretation of 'Accidents Will Happen'. A little later, just before leaving for good, he introduced them.

Strictly speaking, the gentlemen didn't all stand before us. Pete Thomas was sitting at his kit, and even without a stool Steve Nieve has never exactly stood, more sort of bendily perched on his pipe-cleaner pins. Bruce Thomas was the only one who adhered to the dictionary definition of upright. Like the mugshots of a person who is helping the police with their enquiries, he had two Wymanesque poses - full frontal, and in profile - from which he didn't budge all night.

As for the man himself, he trooped on in the regulation chunky black jacket and, ignoring the jaunty entrance soundtrack, ran headlong into a wall of noise like a hippo making for the swamp. After the dainty dissonance of last year's collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, the subtext came through loud and clear: this is more like it.

There are two possible reasons why Costello clutters his already lyrically dense compositions with excess baggage. Either, like Dylan did in the 1970s, he's reached the deific stage in his career where he thinks some songs require radical reinterpretation. Or else he's slinging out the oldies deliberately badly to highlight the brilliance of the new album Brutal Youth.

The second theory carries more weight, since with the arrival of 'Sulky Girl' the clouds cleared and the Attractions got into their stride. After our hosts' first words, an apology for the colour of his towel (blue, not green), we moved straight into 'London's Brilliant Parade', a song from Brutal Youth that contrives to sound like vintage Costello. It gave Steve Nieve his first splurging excursion into avant garde, a la 'Aladdin Sane', and a musician who is up there with Ronson and Ron Wood in the Sidekicks' Hall of Fame looked stimulated to be back in a familiar environment.

In a show this long, peaks and troughs were inevitable. A third crisp highlight followed in 'Deep Dark Truthful Mirror', in which Costello asks us for the umpteenth time to share in his sense of self-disgust (there's one of them on every album). But periods of ennui ensued as the band dipped into the slacker areas of Brutal Youth - 'You Tripped at Every Step', 'Rocking Horse Road' and 'My Science Fiction Twin'.

Sputteringly, though, the show soared to heights of brilliance that were mostly absent from the cacophonous tour which hawked the disappointing Mighty Like a Rose. 'Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind?' shuddered and snarled magnificently, and a trio of songs from the new album proved that Costello still has an ear for the sour pop melody. 'Clown Strike', a title that could have issued from only one pen, offered a duel between Nieve's keyboards and Costello's raging guitar. 'Kinder Murder', a bog-standard Attractions ditty, was hugely persuasive. And the muted beauty of 'It's Still too Soon to Know' held its own against the masterpiece on its heels.

For 'Shipbuilding', Costello ditched his guitar, gave the floor to Nieve and sang like k d lang, tingling your nervous system with wild dynamic variations. For those who prefer their Costello unaccompanied except by himself, this fleeting triumph was matched only by the first encore, in which Nieve scampered up to the organ already on the premises and backed Costello through a spellbindingly intimate 'Favourite Hour'. In the crusty old venue, this must have been a first.

The longer the show continued, the more frequently the back catalogue was consulted. 'Watching the Detectives', 'Radio Radio' and '(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea' lined up among the usual suspects. A slow version of 'Alison', without which no Costello concert is complete, waggishly dissolved into a Smokey Robinson medley - 'The Tracks of My Tears', 'The Tears of a Clown', rounded off by Costello's own 'Clowntime is Over'.

A muscular 'All the Rage' completed the plundering of Brutal Youth, after which there was only time for '(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?' and a rather post factum 'Pump it Up'. It was round about here that Costello introduced the band. Some accidents are just meant to happen.

(Photograph omitted)