Elvis is alive and well and appearing in the Symphony Hall, obviously not THAT Elvis…the other one…Mr Costello, although one of the door staff did have a bit of a grey quiff…so you never know.
I’m a bit of an Elvis Costello fan, more so of his early work (Pump It Up Oliver’s Army, Watching The Detectives, I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down…wonderful, wonderful new wave stuff). I dabbled in some of his later material, Good Year For The Roses, Pills and Soap, but I’ve not really kept up with much of his recent output though.
Tonight then was a splendid opportunity to catch up with Elvis MMIX, backed by long standing collaborators The Brodsky Quartet in the rather sumptuous surroundings of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. On paper this billing could be a bit of a dog’s dinner. New Wave artist (yes I know he’s so much more than that but, in my head I’m still hearing Pump It Up) meets chamber music. But, if anyone can make it work, it’s Elvis. A quick glance through his CV reveals the odd classical album, some blues and jazz stuff, ballet (scoring…not performing), the Rugrats movie and a guest appearance on the last Fall Out Boy album. Elvis leaves no genre unturned (in fact you can probably expect a Death Metal album sometime soon).
Listening to the opening number, ‘Accidents Will Happen’ it struck me that tonight was the musical equivalent of welding the front of a Golf GTi to the back of a Rolls Royce. Both are fine vehicles in their own right, but together there’s something just a bit strange about it all. Bold certainly. Enjoyable, definitely. But, yep, just a little odd. Elvis himself is a talented vocalist and, time after time tonight you got the sense that he was pushing that voice as far as it would go, often moving away from the microphone altogether and going ‘au natural’. Happily the acoustics in The Symphony Hall made these moments some of the most memorable.
Then you’ve got the rich, lush sweeping strings of The Brodsky Quartet. A group that’s been around (in one form or another) even longer than Elvis (they formed in 1972). As far as classical music goes I’m probably like your average Joe in the street. I know my Brahms from my elbow and that’s about it. But tonight the Brods stirred something deep within and often the juxtaposition of the very old and the relatively new worked really well, against all the odds. As the evening wore on I (and I sense Elvis too) settled in to it all. The set borrowed heavily (and understandably) from the Elvis and Brodsky collaboration, 1993’s ‘Juliet Letters’, but we had a few new songs too. At least one of which, the splendid, ‘Down Among The Wines And Spirits’ is set to appear on forthcoming album 'The Secret, The Profane and The Sugarcane'.
The highlight for me though was a moving reworking of Shipbuilding (covered so memorably by the wheeled god himself, Mr Robert Wyatt). Written about the Falklands war it’s sheer poetry and, although nothing could come close to Wyatt’s version, Elvis’ new interpretation still hit the spot. I also enjoyed being reminded of just how good his anti-Thatcher anthem ‘Pills and Soap’ (released under the name The Imposter during 1983’s election campaign) is. Not heard it for years, but it has to be one of his best and tonight’s arrangement was one of the most successful of the evening.
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis IS alive and well…