tue 23/07/2024

Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Eventim Apollo review - and the band played on | reviews, news & interviews

Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Eventim Apollo review - and the band played on

Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Eventim Apollo review - and the band played on

His aim is still true

Elvis Costello: the gig that cheersJames O'Mara

Elvis Costello is arguably – perhaps unarguably – the most enduring and genuine talent to emerge from the mid-Seventies pub and punk scenes, and his two-hour set on Friday night demonstrated that he’s still a compelling performer, full of energy and passion.

The voice isn’t quite what it was, off-pitch at times, though it retains its distinctive timbre and vibrato.

The artist formerly known as Declan MacManus had reinvented himself as Elvis just before Presley died, putting together one of the classiest bands of the day and proceeding to pour out a string of memorable songs which, for those of us who were students in those days, never fail to remind us of where we were and who we were with when we first heard them. Punk was tuneless and musically ephemeral, but Elvis fused its energy with true songwriting genius, along the way collaborating with the Brodsky Quartet, the Charles Mingus Orchestra, Burt Bacharach, Carole King and Paul McCartney among others.

The variety of styles remains astonishing, from the freneticism of numbers such as “Chelsea” and “Pump It Up”,  to “Alison” and “I Want You”, from the wit and whimsy of “God’s Comic” (“So there he was on a water-bed/ ….listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's "Requiem"/ He said, before it had really begun, "I prefer the one about my son") to the intricate social commentary wrapped in a catchy tune that’s “Oliver’s Army”. His indictment of late 1980s Conservatism, “Tramp the Dirt Down”, is sadly as relevant today as at its original outing. And let’s not forget “The Scarlet Tide”, co-written with T-Bone Burnett for Cold Mountain – its melodic and harmonic structure make it tricky to sing but ensure it lodges in the brain, and the heart.

As Greil Marcus once observed, Costello understood that “To make true political music you have to say what decent people don’t want to hear”. At the Hammersmith Odeon (as he and many of us continue to think of it), Costello ranged widely across his 45-year back catalogue, backed by the Imposters (Steve Neive on keyboards, Davey Faragher on bass, Pete Thomas on drums – the Attractions of old) and singers Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee. Costello himself plays a combo or rhythm and lead and you get the feeling that he’s really worked on the latter, the licks impressive, practised rather than spontaneous. He’s a very “complete” front man, playing electric and acoustic guitar, while Faragher’s distinctive bass lines add a great deal to the texture.

It was a well-paced set that kicked off with “Strict Time”, “Clubland”, “Green Shirt” and “Accidents Will Happen” – showstoppers all, and he’d hardly started. “Photographs Can Lie” was a reminder that Elvis has co-written with some of the greats, in this case Burt Bacharach, to whom he paid fulsome tribute, offering a few bars of “The Look of Love”. “Burnt Sugar”, a song long in the making, was written with Carole King, a collaboration about which he admitted to some nerves “She wrote ‘Locomotion’ at 14!” he told us. The old George Jones number “Good Year for the Roses” brought the house down, a reminder that Costello is also a good interpreter of other people’s songs. Moving to the piano, he chatted about his musical (definitely coming), and sang its title song, “A Face in the Crowd”, plus “Blood and Hot Sauce”.

He was in chatty mood throughout, offering anecdotes from the tour – his haunted dressing room at the Sunderland Empire, where the great Sid James died, and Liverpool, where his 92-year-old mother had, against expectations, been able to see him live. He paid tribute to the staff at Arrowe Park who’d nursed her back to health, noting that the first British coronavirus victims had been quarantined there. The comments were implicitly political, and everyone cheered for the NHS, there in our hour of collective need. The spectre of the pandemic hung over the concert: Costello said he’d expected the night to be cancelled and as he and the band entered the final strait (“Every Day I Write the Book”, “Pump It Up”), he acknowledged that in all likelihood London would mark the end of the tour, which had been scheduled to close midweek in Birmingham before taking a break and heading across the Atlantic.

Hammersmith was sold out, but there were some expensive empty seats – doubtless, an indication of the anxiety abroad in the land. Costello thanked everyone for turning out and several times expressed the hope that we’d all stay safe and well. Suddenly there’s a sense we’re at war once more, against an enemy we don’t fully understand and are powerless to stop. I’ve often wondered what the summer of 1939 must have felt like, as the drumbeats grew ever louder. The bands played on, of course; in Liverpool, as everywhere, teens and twentysomethings dance through the blitz. It's how my parents met.

Elvis returned in a gold lame jacket for the encores – “Hurry Down Doomsday”, “Oliver’s Army” and What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding”. The audience was indeed pumped up and cheering. But it felt very much like the last hurrah for some time. Like our parents and grandparents in 1945, we are about to be changed by events. You felt everyone understood that.

In a dark time, Elvis Costello and the Imposters lifted our hearts for a couple of hours, a memorable gig at any time that left us fortified.

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