Elvis Costello live in Belfast
Elvis Costello and The Imposters
SSE Arena, Belfast – 19th July 2016
It’s the hottest day of the year in Northern Ireland. Like most of the recent past, the news is dominated by politics and protest. The proletariat is sick of the system and in downtown Belfast, kids trash a fire hydrant and a spontaneous block party breaks out.
It’s not quite the hot, prickly heat of summer ‘76 but there’s an air of revolution and a sense that someone somewhere needs to pick up the musical baton and run. In 1977, the role was filled by Elvis Costello. Almost forty years on he’s back. Back in Belfast. Back where the first notion of ‘Oliver’s Army’ was born. And we’re at the back of the half-arena set-up in Belfast’s lush SSE Arena, enjoying the chilled air and cool swagger of a band wrapping up their latest tour.
Elvis Costello and The Imposters are boundless in their energy, taking the stage by storm like a band half their age. ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘Radio Radio’ set an early pace before a breakdown into a menacingly slick ‘Watching The Detectives’. It’s a song that echoes true even more so now than it did in 1977. We’ve got rolling news, social media, questionable morals and a midweek gig that won’t let up.
With ‘Moods For Moderns’, ‘Accidents Will Happen’ and ‘New Lace Sleeves’, The Imposters are well and truly settled into their groove. Costello is more vocal with the crowd now and at times it feels like a much more intimate show than it really is.
Years of experience in the music industry make for a cool, at-ease frontman who knows just how to play his crowd. He comments on the weather and the impact on his “pale, Ulster skin”, takes a swipe at readers of the Daily Mail and proposes the waltz was invented in “Belfast, the city of love”. With a few crowd members’ hands in the air, he breaks into ‘Sunday’s Best’ and storms through a feisty cover of John Lennon’s ‘Polythene Pam’.
The tempo slows as the band fire out some “greatest hits”. At times they’re going through the motions and with ‘She’, Costello informs us he “hates” the song. It’s begrudgingly played for the fans. Lighters and phones are held aloft for this slower, acoustic section, which ends with a crooning rendition of George Jones’ ‘A Good Year For The Roses’.
‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ is performed with vigour and warmly received. It’s easy to forget in the throws of the post-punk party how good a wordsmith Costello is. Politics hides behind pop melodies and pounding drums. He’s been saving the big guns for the end with ‘Night Rally’ and ‘Riot Act’ preceding a new song.
‘Face In The Crowd’ is more than a new song. It’s a warning. A sombre music-hall era singalong that could have been written in the depression of the 20s, delivered by a pioneer of the depression of the 70s and graciously received by a Belfast crowd enduring the current day worldwide tumult.
Elvis Costello and The Imposters are far from a one-trick pony. You get the politics but you also get the party. It’s the last night of the tour and a double encore laden with hits rolls into the night. ‘Green Shirt’, ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ kick off the second stint at a similar pace to how the evening began. There’s no let up in this well-aged outfit.
When Politik and pop combine is when Costello is at his finest, rocking behind a telecaster, fiery wit, thick-rimmed specs and a turn of phrase not often bettered on the British songwriting scene. Amongst the building crescendo of ‘Shipbuilding’ and ‘Oliver’s Army’, there’s time for the tenderness of ‘Alison’ and a grooving singalong of ‘Everyday I Write The Book’.
By now an old, weary fighter would be ready to tap out but Costello isn’t done just yet. There’s still time for ‘No Action’ and ‘Big Tears’ and a fairly raw ‘I Want You’ to end a two-hour show.
The guitar feeds back and wails, ringing in the ears of those who made the effort to come and be entertained. As the crowd files out of the SSE Arena, the summer sky is just getting dark but the light of Elvis Costello and The Imposters looks set to burn brightly for a few more years to come.