Review: Elvis Costello is back to entertain fans at Oxford’s New Theatre

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In March 2020 I was about to go and see Elvis Costello at the New Theatre and the call came through – the concert is cancelled.

Lockdown soon followed and we know the rest. So I was delighted to go along with a friend to the excellent George Street venue when the singer finally returned last week.

I’ve been listening to Elvis Costello ever since Armed Forces came out in 1979, and as he has such a vast back catalogue I was hoping to hear a good selection of old favourites.

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The evening started well. Costello was backed by the Imposters, featuring his loyal acolytes Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums.

They launched the show with Accidents Will Happen – my favourite Costello song – then Green Shirt, another top tune from Armed Forces.

Either Side Of The Same Town, one of the best tracks from 2004’s The Delivery Man, followed.

But I was lulled into a false sense of security by such safe choices as what followed was a deep dive into two of Costello’s latest album releases Hey Clockface and The Boy Named If.

Costello as a recording artist is prolific – Hey Clockface was released in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, with The Boy Named If arriving the following year.

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He also released a Spanish take on This Year’s Model and has just released an EP called The Resurrection of Rust, a collection of songs he recorded with one of his earliest collaborators Allan Mayes.

Costello seems in a good mood and launches into Hetty O’Hara Confidential from Hey Clockface, more of a rap than a song but it’s not long before we return to more familiar territory with Watching The Detectives.

But the audience is not allowed to take it easy – there’s a disturbing monologue half way through which I can’t keep up with, so I’m delighted to hear straightforward renditions of Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes and Mystery Dance, although there is no Radio Sweetheart.

Next up is a new song, Tipsy Woman, one of the evening’s highlights, along with Good Year For the Roses, which Steve Nieve adorns beautifully with some lovely piano fills.

Then Costello shares some more of his back story about how the family surname McManus led to them being mistakenly connected to Mick McManus, the well-known wrestler, and the singer draws inspiration from the confusion for The Man You Love To Hate, one of my favourite tracks from The Boy Named If.

After about two hours, we are on the home straight.

The singer launches into I Don’t Wanna Go To Chelsea, Pump It Up, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, and Alison, interspersed with a couple of more recent tunes.

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It’s been a hugely enjoyable evening but you have to pay attention because the days of Costello’s spinning songbook hits shows are long behind him.

I’m left feeling educated and entertained but also slightly cheated. There was no Radio Radio, no New Amsterdam.

Did Costello play anything from his albums King of America, Blood and Chocolate, Spike, Brutal Youth, or All This Useless Beauty? I don’t think so.

Perhaps I’m one of the fans Costello ‘loves to hate’ as I can’t stop playing his old songs, while he has no choice but to move on and write new ones.

Andy Ffrench