The Eurovision Song Contest was held last night, which would normally mean that I’d be spending the evening slumped on a sofa surrounded by beer, crisps and despair (my account of last year’s experience is here). This year however I was able to break the cycle by dint of having an opportunity to tick off one of the really major items on my musical to-do list – Elvis Costello was playing Cambridge for the first time in decades, and while the tickets were hair-raisingly pricy he’s one of the few acts I’m genuinely happy to shriek “hang the expense!” about.
I’ve been a fan of Costello since buying Punch The Clock on a school trip to Norwich in 1984, and while I’m not really up to speed with the last few albums put up by this fearsomely prolific songwriter I’m ready to defend his first ten years’ output against all comers. This man must have written more great pop songs than pretty much anybody – Lennon and McCartney, Holland, Dozier and Holland, Carole King, Frank Sidebottom, you name it – and at least one of his records, the ostensibly Stax and Motown pastiching, but in actuality contender for greatest soul album ever made, Get Happy!!, will have to prised from my clammy hands with a sonic lance capable of drilling holes in Saturn’s rings when justice finally catches up with me and sends me to that desert island based containment facility. You get the idea.
For his current tour Costello has resurrected the format that he was using in the mid-80s round about the time of Blood And Chocolate. The stage is dominated by a vast fairground-style rotating wheel upon the fifty or so sectors of which appear the names of either tried and trusted selections from his copious back catalogue or slightly cryptic jackpot categories, such as “Time”, “Girl” or “Crime and Punishment”*. The bulk of the night’s set is thus chosen by members of the audience, who are picked out and led up by the stage by one of Costello’s glamorous assistants: they get to spin the wheel and the band then launch into whatever song the roulette arrow points at when it comes to rest, while the lucky punters occupy themselves either by sipping brightly coloured drinks at a faux cocktail lounge or by jigging energetically in a go-go dancer’s cage. When there are no members of the general public available or willing to provide distraction there’s another glamorous assistant on hand to throw some shapes. It’s an ingenious mechanism that allows Costello to vary his set-lists and provide suspense and visual interest for his audience (even if you eventually start suspecting that the wheel may well be slightly rigged here and there), and also affords him the opportunity to relish his role as a slightly seedy master of ceremonies.
It also has the very useful function of allowing Costello to put on shows of extraordinary length containing several full-on sequences of four or five fast and ferociously delivered songs without physically exhausting his audience. At Cambridge he played for just shy of three hours and must have performed thirty odd numbers, very few of which had anything of the laid-back about them. Incredibly, this is more or less the same band that he was playing with in the late 70s when he was in danger of becoming a regular, if slightly funny-looking, pop star: Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve remain on drums and keyboards respectively, with the only change being Davey Faragher on bass in place of the estranged Bruce Thomas (Thomas wrote a distinctly non-complimentary book about his life on tour with Costello, and the two haven’t seen eye-to eye since). The main man himself must be nearly sixty now, but doesn’t look significantly different to how he did in 1977, or 1983, or any time outside his ill-considered beard years. It’s possible the porkpie hat he sports throughout is there to conceal baldness, but it suits his stage persona just fine. The band open with a blast through a few highlights from Costello’s 70s repertoire, and surprisingly this sets a pattern for most of the evening – I may have just had a lucky night, but it seems that most of the audience selections come from the era I’d consider golden, with amazingly few being unfamiliar to me, presumably because they’re drawn from recent albums. Whether rigged or not, the band tear through this stuff like they’re amphetamine-fuelled teenagers, and while the acoustics at the cavernous Corn Exchange are never going to be ideal for an M.O. this aggressive you can at least always pick out the singer’s commanding vocals. He may not be your cup of tea, but this guy can really sing, and sometimes you feel he doesn’t even need the public address system.
It’s not all rama-lama mind. A couple of hours in, the band leave the stage and Costello goes acoustic, first on guitar, then on ukulele, playing songs which sound like they started in life in 1930s folk clubs but knowing this songwriter’s fecundity may well be original. It’s a welcome change of pace. He also gives us his soulful, if slightly overwrought, take on the immortal Shipbuilding, which may be his best ever lyric, and the savage, Thatcher-hating Tramp The Dirt Down, which as he points out in one of his many humorous and chatty asides, seems to have become depressingly relevant again. There’s also a startling interlude in the middle of Watching The Detectives where he leaves the stage and wanders through the packed auditorium while chanting like a shaman – presumably he knows his audience demographic well enough by now not to expect any disrespectful invasions of his person.
And then, just before the end, and just as I was inwardly bemoaning the absence of any material from Get Happy!! we get a climactic run featuring not only I Can’t Stand Up and the awesome High Fidelity but 24 carat crowd pleasers Oliver’s Army and Pump It Up. The roof duly comes off, the band take a bow, the lights come up and you can watch the wheel start to be taken apart by the road crew as you shuffle out. The longest gig I’ve been to since I stood in the middle of Wembley stadium watching Springsteen in 1985, but definitely one of the best. Value for money at twice the price.
* It turns out these unlock sequence of songs with a common theme. Last night someone got “Numbers”, which led to Two Little Hitlers, My Three Sons, 45 and so on.
Setlist, included for Costello obsessives only (updated 29/5/12, and should be definitive now. Amazingly, he played no less than 12 of his first 15 UK singles):
I Hope You’re Happy Now, Heart Of The City, Mystery Dance, Radio Radio, Bedlam, Living In Paradise, Big Tears, Shabby Doll, My Three Sons, Less Than Zero, Two Little Hitlers, 45, One Bell Ringing, Accidents Will Happen, Alison, Everyday I Write The Book, (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea, Shipbuilding, Watching The Detectives/Help Me, Clubland, Good Year For The Roses, A Slow Drag With Josephine, Who’s The Meanest Gal In Town Josephine, Jimmie Standing In the Rain, Tramp The Dirt Down, National Ransom no. 9, I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, High Fidelity, Oliver’s Army, Pump It Up/Day Tripper, What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding