Monday, 1 July 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: Elvis Costello

The London-born crooner embraces his roots with a seasoned, slick and stylish debut show in Derry-Londonderry

In the wake of the disappointing Buena Vista Social Club, Ebrington Square's Venue is in need of some zest. Some real musical punch. And that is exactly what Elvis Costello, accompanied by The Imposters, provides on his return to the land of his ancestors, in his first appearance in the City Of Culture 2013.

The very moment the lights dim and thunderous, macabre music surrounds us, Costello steps forward to begin strumming one of the many guitars he will use on the night. One already senses we will be in for one of the best musical experiences of this cultured year.

And it only gets better.

Backed by what is almost certainly the best drumming and keyboard playing I have heard all year, Costello rattles through his early numbers at a very quick tempo, without stopping for a breather. Along with keyboarder Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher, Costello marks his territory on stage very early on with an almost unbelievable engine, coolness and level of skill.

His vocals are clear and soulful, like Billy Joel minus the cheese, and he's not averse to giving us a singable refrain or two. By the time he finally stops to shout, "Good evening Derry!", one wonders: can he and the band possibly keep this up? Answer: Yes they can.

"You Don't Know What Love Is" is both reassuring and energizing, with the strong, bluesy vocals really getting under your skin, while "Everyday I Write The Book" inspires everyone – even me – to clap, creating an atmosphere in which you can't hear a pen – mine, that is – drop.

Realising that the tone might be getting a little one-dimensional, Costello switches genres with the reflective, bluesy "Either Side Of The Same Town" and the nostalgic ode to Johnny Cash's daughter, "Song With Rose." Merely mentioning the Man in Black is enough to inspire our bandleader to both amuse and entertain us with a funny tale of meeting Cash himself, before giving us a version of "Cry, Cry, Cry." At the moment, it's all about the music, and rather fine music it is too.

When "Watching The Detectives" starts up, things get very funky indeed. Costello encourages his audience to leave their seats and come to the front of the Venue, and many oblige, resulting in the best moment of the concert so far.  His guitar solo, aided by a megaphone, reverberates around the Venue like a sonic boom of joy. It's pretty astonishing, as is the extremely jungly "Bedlam", which creates an off-the-wall beat worthy of Guns 'N' Roses at their peak.

The real highlight of the night, however, arrives when Costello switches to romanticism, waltzing off stage and into the audience itself for both "Shipbuilding" and his cover of Charles Aznavour’s "She". Those lucky enough to shake his hand or be waved at during these two songs will surely never forget this moment. But the songs themselves, especially "She" – made famous in Notting Hill – are enough to make one feel fortunate, melancholy and ecstatic all at once. For this reviewer, it is like being transported back to the cinema in 1999.

Following this really won't be easy, and Costello knows it. Therefore, he decides to acknowledge both his heritage and his surroundings with some “history lessons”. Whether he’s talking, or singing, about Letterkenny in 1921 with "A Slow Drag With Josephine" or a girl travelling into theatres and choosing to go into cowboy music in "Jimmie Standing In The Rain", the effect is the same; catchy, mid-tempo guitar rhythms mixed with a hugely affable persona. (He never forgets to remind the audience how lucky he feels to be playing in Derry-Londonderry.)

In many ways, he's a singing comedian, lovable ol' Elvis rolled into an irresistible package. Suddenly, his resemblance to the legendary Eric Morecambe no longer seems that coincidental.

A series of fun, easy-going sing-alongs follow, providing deserved interval-esque breathers for Costello, the band and the crowd, before the initial eighty-minute set concludes with a turn for the serious and sombre. A heartfelt tribute to the father he lost to dementia ("Suit Of Lights") precedes the angry and controversial political commentary of "Tramp The Dirt Down".

The rather unsettling effect these songs have on Costello cannot be ignored as he begins the first encore with somewhat regretful, ballad-y tunes that aren't really suited to him or the band. But, to quote a very famous singing duo, his voice generally carries you through this rough spot like a bridge over troubled water. And he is back on top form by first encore's end, channelling 1980s Paul Weller and delighting mod rock lovers all over the Venue. It's a great tonic for the summertime blues.

As the second encore starts and ends - with "Alison", "Pump It Up" (watch him perform it at Glastonbury 2013 below) and "What’s So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love & Understanding?" the highlights - it becomes clear to me why Costello appears to have won over the Derry-Londonderry crowd like no other singer in the Venue has this year. He has been a firecracker, a hugely appreciative, expressive, vivid and versatile performer who has seemingly covered a lifetime's worth of genres in one night. Seasoned, slick, and stylish, with genuinely good and sometimes otherworldly musicianship, Elvis Costello & The Imposters' contribution to the City Of Culture 2013 deserves to be fondly remembered.