If there’s one thing Elvis Costello can’t do, it’s whatever he did last time.
Two years ago, Costello brought his ‘Singing Songbook’ to the Sage, the nearest he’ll ever get to a greatest hits tour, albeit with the audience choosing the songs by spinning a giant wheel that contained many of the most loved tunes from his large back catalogue.
Back at the same venue, he has dispensed with the band, appearing backed only by a giant mock TV and a collection of guitars that would keep Windows in business for a number of years.
The show is called Detour and it is very much a ramble through the more obscure and half-forgotten songs of his illustrious career. I have 26 of Costello’s albums in my house and have played most of them to death, but there are times when I am scratching my head and going “ooh, what’s this one?”
By its nature, a show of obscurities throws up moments where you think “I wish he would play Oliver’s Army” (he does, by the way, and it’s great). But there are also some wonderful surprises, from the opening Sneaky Feelings to Hoover Factory, a 1981 B-side that didn’t see light of day again until added to the release of his Get Happy album in 1994. It’s a belter.
Time has changed Costello from an angry young man to a warm and funny raconteur, telling stories about his father and grandfather – musicians both – and how their influence has shaped his career in song.
And that lineage is very much the story of Detour, with songs by the likes of Patsy Cline and Nat King Cole thrown in alongside early punk favourites. He may be one of the country’s greatest songwriters, but this is a set which also accommodates other people’s tunes to mark the impact they have had on his life.
Classic ballad Alison, sung without any amplification, brings the Sage to awed silence, before a supercharged Pump It Up (written on the fire escape of the old Swallow Hotel in Newcastle, fact fans) and country tune Good Year for the Roses (with backing from young country band and support act Larkin Poe) bring things to a thrilling end.
It is a reminder that Elvis Costello, contrarian or not, is generally wonderful. Next time you see him he will be entirely different, but I wouldn’t bet against him being wonderful again.