Monday, October 12, 2009

Elvis Costello

Sunday October 11 2009
Tasman Hall, Wrest Point Casino

by Stephenie Cahalan

I have always loved Elvis Costello for his extraordinary song writing. His lyrics mix limerick-cheek with artful word play and searing insight into the delights and despairs of life. But I really had no idea of what a gifted guitarist he is until I saw him play solo at the Wrest Point casino on Sunday night.

It is a thrill to see a musician who is truly a master of his craft perform. At times it was like Costello was a having a conversation with his guitar — one that he was happy to share with the thousand-odd eavesdroppers in the audience.

Costello offered a mix of old favorite crowd-pleasers, including ‘Everyday I write the book’ which he claimed to hate (too hard to sing!), plus a sweet taste of new stuff that, far from sending many running to the bar or toilet as can be the case with new material, kept everyone totally engaged. Costello can almost work a bit of Sondheim-like melodrama into his work at times. But you know an artist is completely in a league of his own when he has over thirty years of musical credibility and a vast list of song credits, yet chooses to cover classics like ‘Hide your love away’ by The Beetles, ‘Jackie Wilson said‘ by Van Morrison, and (oh, so beautiful) ‘She’ by Charles Aznavour. And given that I will never get to see The Beetles play, a cover by Costello is fine consolation.

Just watching Elvis work on that guitar was like seeing a kind of modern-dance-with-instrument act. Frustratingly, the music stand placed in front of him meant that those of us sitting on the right side of the auditorium could see little of the intricate finger-work without looking at the screens placed either side of the stage.

His interaction with the audience was distant at first, working up to a pub-like rapport with the crowd by the close of the show. Maybe that was helped by whatever he was swigging from that mug, which I first assumed was herbal tea (in keeping with a generation of musos who have cleaned up after years of hard partying). Jagger and Bowie weathered the hedonism and excesses of the earlier crazy decades, but Elvis Costello and his exceptional contemporaries like Joe Strummer and Paul Weller shone through the musical muck that abounded in the eighties. And if that doesn’t deserve a little glass of personality on stage, I don’t know what does.

It is a tribute to Costello’s musical calibre and showmanship that he could breath so much energy into a terminally soul-less venue like the Tasman Hall at the Casino. Is this really the best Hobart has to offer? It is a great yawning cavern of a room and I wish Costello’s tourers could have steered him to the Theatre Royal (although it is currently hosting Miss Saigon) or perhaps the concert hall. Any place with more life, both in the acoustics and the atmosphere.

The audience was thrilled with the gig, standing in ovation and winning a second encore as reward. I suspect, judging by the quietly-pleased smile on his face as he left the stage, that Costello was rather happy too. I really hope he meant it when he said he would be back.