There was nothing unexpected when Elvis Costello emerged onstage with his back-up band The Imposters. As are his traditional wares these days, he sported a fedora, black-rimmed spectacles and a pinstriped suit, with a guitar latched over his shoulder. Without any hubbub or banter, he launched into his first song, Brilliant Mistake.
Appropriately titled, Brilliant Mistake kicked the affair off with a fizzle, followed by nine more songs that were unfortunately lacklustre, with only a handful receiving a smattering of recognition applause from the crowd – Man Out of Time, Everyday I Write the Book. The songs were taken mostly from his late ’80s to present-day catalogue, and the performance had thus far seemed more an exercise in Costello showing off his expertise in tackling a range of genres than anything else.
Despite the poor start, Costello still had showmanship in spades. It was even on display during the first ten songs, with the icon tilting his hat and smiling at the audience at the end of Man Out Of Time, his arm chopping down to kick back the rhythm section during Watch Your Step, and his folk singer-like posture — guitar-head lifted high, bent at one knee — during Suit Of Lights.
For a man who knows his way around lyrics, even hailed a troubadour, he only made slight chitchat during one stretch early on in the night. Banter about Easter miracles and songs about feast days reached a high when Costello playfully lashed out at a song request — “You were speaking that fucking Australian accent!” — and music taste in Melbourne — “Because you like that Brazilian music in Melbourne” — before launching into Come The Meantimes.
The show found some rocking traction with Deep Dark Truthful Mirror followed by Blame It On Cain. Both songs found a fuller sound missing from a few of the earlier cuts, before Costello took his foot off the accelerator and paid his respects to the late Jesse Winchester with a couple of covers.
Later on it was Watching The Detectives, a ska-infused track from his first record. Kicking things off with the sound of a klaxon, Costello flexed his guitar chops by venturing into an alt-rock guitar solo, distorting his part and looping it over himself like magic. The song garnered the biggest audience response of the evening, as the band walked offstage for some reason.
Costello and the Imposters quickly returned for the second part of the show, which was packed to the brim with hits and few complaints. Shipbuilding followed by Oliver’s Army saw the first set of punters spontaneously jumping out from their seats to dance. Alison got its dues, while (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea was extended with a bluesy, Hendrix-esque guitar solo.
The audience got into it at this point, prodded and lightly encouraged to clap along by Costello. By the end of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding, every seat was empty, with everyone standing and boogying in that dad-and-mum fashion. Unfortunately, Costello didn’t capitalise on the momentum, lagging into two snoozy tunes.
Offstage and quickly back on again, it was time for the real encore. Pump It Up began and for the first time in the two-hour show, age seemed to have taken its toll on Costello, who could barely spit out the verses in time. There was none of the late-’70s Costello swagger, and the tune sounded chintzy in execution. The show ended slow and in underwhelming fashion, a bit too schmaltzy and not upbeat enough.
But so what? When you’re witnessing an act whose career spans almost forty years and thirty albums, the show becomes more and more about how the man is still, and always has been, a legend – even though all those years may be of detriment to the show.
Elvis Costello and the Imposters play Sydney’s State Theatre on Wednesday, 23rd April and will appear at Byron Bay Bluesfest 2014 this Monday, 21st April.