Review: Elvis Costello takes a spin through revolutionary song book

Elvis Costello: The Revolver Tour
Elvis Costello
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Elvis Costello: The Revolver Tour

Tonight’s turn: Elvis Costello

Review: Elvis Costello: The Revolver Tour
Venue: York Barbican, Monday, June 17

 

Elvis Costello, the angry young man who brought intelligence and musical sophistication to the largely infantile world of punk rock, now greets the world with a smile.

And – who would have thought it? – he is a natural at audience participation. Removing the trademark pork-pie hat, and picking up top hat and cane to introduce his Spectacular Spinning Song Book show, he was quite the Vaudevillian.

Before that, we’d opened with a breathless performance of four songs, culminating in a manic version of Radio Radio which threatened to go off track. It was good to be reminded later that it is Costello’s more nuanced and subtle work that marks him out as one of the finest British songwriters of the last few decades.

Audience members were brought on to spin the wheel from which one of 50 songs would be selected and performed by Elvis and his current band, the Imposters. “The wheel has the power of love,” said Costello, as Alex and Catherine came on stage.

The band played their selection, Charles Aznavour’s She (a curious inclusion as Costello clearly doesn’t like it) while Alex and Catherine (no mean mover, she) danced. Then (somehow we knew this was coming) Alex proposed successfully on stage. “I won’t play The Long Honeymoon,” quipped Costello.

In another nod to the cheesier end of the showbiz world, a caged dancer gyrated like a a mini-skirted girl from the cover of those late 1960s-1970s Top of the Pops compilation albums that still turn up in charity shops. Meanwhile, a leggy blonde supervised the spinning wheel.

If there was something faintly surreal and perhaps ironic about Costello as light-entertainer, he then added another layer of weirdness. Shot By His Own Gun, one of his darkest (“how does it feel to be undressed by a man with a mind like the gutter press?”) and most melodically complex songs deftly challenged any audience complacency. A gig highlight, it included a spectacular piece of piano showboating by long-term keyboards man Steve Nieve.

Costello couldn’t resist playing Tramp The Dirt Down, his anti-Thatcher (“a song about a woman I used to hate”) polemic but didn’t make the mistake of using it to celebrate her death.

There was an honourable mention for Scottish writer and committed socialist Iain Banks, who died of cancer last week. That brought a cheer from the audience and reminded us that Costello was playing to the converted. How else to explain the big hand for a woeful, flat rendition of Shipbuilding that went down with all hands?

Costello’s performance, like a remarkable career in which he’s written upwards of 500 songs, might have been occasionally uneven. His voice (never a thing of beauty) is strong enough at best to withstand even the heavier numbers but comes and goes. Then again, he gave his audience terrific value for money, playing for almost two-and-a-half hours. Personally, I’d like to have heard a few more forays into the world of country music, to which his voice is well suited. There was nothing from his excellent 1981 Nashville album Almost Blue, although A Good Year For The Roses was an unselected wheel number.

What next for Costello, who is still the right side of 60 and has plenty of fire in his belly? Another venture into the world of classical music, along the lines of his work with the Brodsky Quartet, maybe? Then again, rock music’s Renaissance Man would probably be quite good at panto.