Elvis Costello

His committment can't be denied, but a backing band may have made this the gig of the year

Almost as famous for his awkwardness as for his music, Elvis Costello takes the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's audience by surprise by opening with the golden oldie, ‘Oliver’s Army’.

Across a set pushing two and a half hours, the man born Declan Patrick McManus also plays fan favourites like ‘She’, ‘Watching the Detectives’, ‘Alison’ and ‘Pump It Up’. But, of course, there had to be a wrinkle, and there is: this is a solo, acoustic show.

While that might be OK with many of the Costello faithful – and they don’t come much more partisan than this mob – for this writer it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Like a Sunday roast without the gravy, tonight’s performance is difficult to swallow and doesn’t quite hit the spot. If Costello had brought along current backing group the Impostors, this could well have been one of the finest gigs ever to grace the Waterfront Hall. As it is, it’s one mainly for the hardcore fans.

Costello, armed with an arsenal of guitars, a grand piano and, for one tune, a megaphone, works his way through his illustrious back catalogue – from early B-side ‘Radio Sweetheart’ (‘The first song I ever recorded’) to ‘A Slow Drag with Josephine’, from last year’s National Ransom (‘A rock ‘n’ roll song like it used to be in 1923’).

For a man with more than 30 studio albums to draw upon, he makes a good fist of the setlist. The spiky performer may have made his name in the punk boom, but he displays the singing, songwriting and guitar-playing skills that have elevated him to the top of many people’s 'all-time favourites' lists.

Through the years, Costello has maintained quality control over his output – thus, 1980s classics like ‘Good Year for the Roses’, ‘Suit of Lights’ and ‘Veronica’ sit snugly alongside fare such as ‘Either Side of the Same Town’ and the discordant ‘Bedlam’ (his ‘Christmas single’, apparently) from the 2000s.

But it’s the big songs that elicit the biggest responses. ‘I Want You’, from 1986’s Blood & Chocolate album, is charged with energy and attitude, belying Costello’s 57 years, while 1979’s ‘(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ has lost none of its power three decades on.

The star’s dry sense of humour surfaces now and then, such as when he introduces ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ as ‘a song I really hate’. Later, he smiles and shrugs as punters shout unintelligible requests: ‘No idea.’

Despite the concert being trumpeted as sold out, there are numerous empty seats, but this doesn’t put Costello off. He hangs around for several encores – I lost count after three – and at times dispenses with the microphone altogether, coming to the lip of the stage to howl his ever-clever lyrics unamplified into the darkness.

It’s raw, committed and certainly goes down well with the majority here tonight, but the sad truth is that rock ‘n’ roll shows are just never as much fun when they’re unplugged. Perhaps Costello will make good on tonight’s promise to return next year with the full band. If so, that really would be something to write about.

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