One of the great things about going to see ‘The Man’ Elvis Costello live is that you are assured of something different every time. His appearance at the Royal Albert Hall this week as part of London’s Blues Fest was no exception. For a musician this seasoned, talented and with such a vast and varied back catalogue is able to traverse the genres with ease and keep his shows fresh and exciting. Last Wednesday evening was in fact something of a one-off double bill for fans of jazz, the blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
In support before the main ‘Attraction’ was 60’s star Georgie Fame with his band The Blue Flames. Turned out in fine suits with slicked back hair, they launched into a slew of his hits from back in the day, these days placing a cool new spin on tunes from his own hits to those of his peers. An extended breakdown of Van Morrison’s ’Moondance’ was a particular highlight. Georgie’s laid back and distinctly Northern intros to the tunes from behind his well-travelled Hammond organ took the audience back several decades through reminisces of his time on the scene, and set the tone nicely for an evening of old school musicianship. They also provided a lovely contrast to the south-American blues stylings that followed – that lovely British emulation of music from across the pond so prevalent from the 1950’s onwards. Before their set was over, Mr Costello himself bounded onstage to provide lead vocals, which geared the audience up nicely for the main event.
Billed as a solo performance and intended to be so, this proved to be not quite the case once the show got underway. The (count ‘em) six guitars set -p gave the impression that a major band were going to arrive, but this is only because Elvis proceeded over the next two hours to play every last one of them himself. However, on finding original Attraction and virtuoso pianist Steve Naïve available at the last moment he gave him almost joint billing so he could lend his inimitable sound to a number of their hits, from the darker Pills and Soap to the more jubilant Oliver’s Army. Having played in support himself on a number of recent occasions in Hyde Park for the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and Ray Davies, it was great to see Mr Costello headlining again – a position he feels all too at ease with. In fact with his now trademark three piece suits, colourful shoes and wide-brimmed hats, getting the crowd going while chewing gum throughout he is one of the more laid back performers the UK’s ever seen play such major venues.
His set list was a masterpiece of stripped-back arrangements from his songbook, letting his vocal do most of the work on the gentler numbers such as Good Year for the Roses, through a slew of acoustic numbers from his moodier 2002 album When I Was Cruel before some serious rocking out on electric guitar for a selection of his earlier, punk-era material. Mr Fame then re-joined him on stage, given neither musician could resist their first occasion to play together in their lengthy careers. Fittingly for the Liverpudlian uber-talent, he ended this pared-back show without the use of the microphone, quieting the audience down so they could take in his voice unaided by technology before sending them out into the winter evening. A unique, class act whose finest work may still be yet to come.
Elvis Costello // Blues Fest at the Royal Albert Hall // 2/11/14.
Words > Roy Swansborough