Concert review: Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Civic Theatre

By Russell Baillie

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Elvis Costello played a two-hour set that spanned his entire career.  Photo / Supplied
Elvis Costello played a two-hour set that spanned his entire career. Photo / Supplied

Originally, the long-awaited return of Elvis Costello was as headliner at another A Day on the Green vineyard concert.

Fortuitously, the show was pulled indoors and reduced to one support - just a short charming solo turn by Don McGlashan doing nifty things with guitar, voice, and loop pedal. He created disarming intimate versions of old songs of his like Don't Fight it Marsha and Andy.

That also meant that Costello and the Imposters - two thirds of his original backers The Attractions - had two hours on stage in front of an attentive seated audience, rather than facing a pinot gris-fuelled hoard just wanting to party like it was 1979.

Instead, we got a dense, often intense but ultimately terrifically entertaining performance of more than two dozen songs pulled from all over the 58 year-old English singer-songwriter's 35-year career.

There was much to remind that Costello's songbook is a deep, long, wide thing. True, he did sprinkle touchstones from those breakthrough New Wave era years in the latter stages of both the main set and the encore.

But often they were stretched into thrilling new shapes - an extended Watching the Detectives scorched the sunny reggae lope of the original with Costello's welding arc guitar.

So too was a seething dramatic I Want You during the encore, while the likes of Alison, I Don't Want to Go To Chelsea and Everyday I Write the Book also came with renewed spark.

It was also a show that managed to make a virtue of some drastic shifts of style and pace - one minute it was Costello the pop classicist belting out with maximum vibrato God Give Me Strength from his Burt Bacharach co-write album Painted from Memory; a few minutes later it was Costello the once angry young man spitting out the pneumatic lyrics of Pump It Up and still sounding like he meant it.

While they might have been Imposters, they sure weren't faking it - especially Steve Nieve who swung around his keyboards like a hyperactive mad scientist offering all sorts of deft and elegant touches. At the final bow, you half expected him to wave an extra pair arms aloft in triumph.

Of late, Costello's touring in the northern hemisphere involved a giant spinning wheel to spontaneously select the setlist as a way to deal with that grand catalogue - between 1977 debut My Aim is True and his last, 2010's National Ransom, he's almost managed an album a year if you count collaboration projects and live sets.

Here though, while the light show hinted at it, there was no wheel. It also strayed outside the lines on some covers of country swingers Walkin' My Baby Back Home and Crying Time.

Covering his one-time producer Nick Lowe's ye olde pub-rocker Heart of the City as the second song of the night was neatly bookended by the closing (What's So Funny `Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?, another Lowe tune which Costello has long made his own.

And after two hours, it wasn't a show to leave you wanting more. But it was captivating to see Costello up close, digging deep, delivering a rich core sample from that vast motherlode of songs.

Yes, that was quite a spectacle.

Who: Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Don McGlashan
Where: Civic Theatre, Auckland
When: Saturday, January 19

- NZ Herald

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