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(Photo by Daniel Boud)


Sydney Opera House, March 31

THERE IS NO POINT PUSSYFOOTING around, this was not a good show. This was in many ways a terrible show. The worst I’ve seen in 42 years and 40+ gigs watching Elvis Costello in various incarnations.

Its partial redemption, albeit not its resurrection on Easter Sunday, was a set list that over more than two hours ranged across his long career in a manner that might have perplexed newcomers (yes, there were some of them in the room: one of them beside me, another behind me) or those whose knowledge of the catalogue doesn’t extend much beyond Every Day I Write The Book, Pump It Up and Alison (which were played) or Veronica, Shipbuilding and She (which were not), but fascinated and intrigued long-termers who could also find adventure in a deconstructed arthouse approach to Watching The Detectives.

There was a first hour that set a template for the night in a rhythm and blues-centred set rooted in the 1950s, including around better-known cuts such as Mystery Dance and Hetty O’Hara Confidential, unreleased songs My Baby Just Squeals (You Heal) and Like Licorice On Your Tongue that Costello introduced with tall tales of “discovering” them on dusty 45s in a record store only a few days earlier, and which could well have passed for Dave Bartholomew or Allen Touissaint b-sides.

There was a closing double encore (signalled by bows taken rather than the band leaving the stage) that powered up with the likes of Pump It Up, Chelsea and Peace, Love And Understanding – along the way emphasising the far too polite tempos on some of the early career songs at the beginning of the night. We had the usual inventive brilliance of Steve Nieve on his various keyboards (seemingly everything, from grand piano to melodica), and some amusement from Costello’s rambling, discursive introductions (albeit frequently beginning or ending off-mic, frustrating those not in the early rows who could not hear them well) that played up his Mr Showman side.

(The Imposters & Elvis Costello. Photo by Daniel Boud.)

Fun, yes. Nonetheless, this show’s original sin was terrible sound that rendered the night a murky chore and far less amusing.

As many have shown in the past couple of years, most recently and thrillingly Wilco a week ago, in its new sound set up the Concert Hall is no longer a sonic deathtrap for electric instruments and there is no ready excuse for poor quality. But here Costello’s voice was buried in the mix and the backing vocals were left underpowered, there was consistent blurring of the keyboards and loss of tone in the early piano songs, while the flattening of Pete Thomas’s drums was matched by Davey Faragher’s electric basses, both upright and regular, often being indistinct.

And exactly what the tour’s guest, guitarist Charlie Sexton, was offering was less a matter of debate as disappointment if you have enjoyed his work as a Bob Dylan sideman. It was only in the show’s dying minutes, as he offered fluid, attractive lines through Alison, that his presence was noticeable.

More fundamental, more disheartening than all of that though was Costello being betrayed by his voice, which is not a “tonight problem” according to reports from Bluesfest and other shows recently, or from anyone who watched online some questionable vocal performances from his residency at the Gramercy Theatre in New York a year ago.

It was more than scratchy: it was rough and ready finding pitch and melody in Brilliant Mistake and gave us a mess of a take on Accidents Will Happen. It reached and regularly fell short of key notes. And while when he leant back and belted it could still make the mark, it could be starkly exposed in piano-and-voice songs and an acoustic-based Mose Allison cover, Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy.

Mixing him down among the instruments may not have been accidental but tactical, which is a dispiriting note to speculate on.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters play the Opera House, April 2; Palais Theatre, Melbourne, April 4 

A version of this review ran originally in The Sydney Morning Herald

1 Comment

Jul 11

Thank you for an honest review. I have seen Elvis live over 30 times, beginning with the English Mugs tour with Squeeze in 1981. His voice was never good. It was an acquired taste like good scotch and I believe most of us fans loved the songs and commitment he sang with live (much like Joe Jackson), so it was ok. I last saw him about 2020 and he sounded worse than ever. Since then, I've seen clips on YouTube,and I find him now unlistenable. It's sad to see a performer, especially a favorite, completely lose it. McCartney is just about there but at least his pitch is still fair. I've turned down Elvis tickets since the last time. I pref…

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