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Elvis Costello’s new show is named “Detour” because, he explained, “where my folks are from, going on tour is called going on ‘de tour’.” There should have been a “bada-bing” from the drummer at this quip about Costello’s Merseyside-Irish background — but none was present. The main attraction, and former leader of The Attractions, was alone at the Palladium with his guitars, a piano, his shaggy dog stories, his puns and an inexhaustible stock of songs.
The staging is a companion piece to Costello’s autobiography Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Published last year, the book is a digressive affair of some 700 pages, written as though to endorse the critic Kenneth Tynan’s stereotype: “The English hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors.” A show that stretched to three encores and included almost 30 songs was devised in the same profuse spirit.
A large mock-up of an old-fashioned television set dominated the stage decor, showing family photographs and footage from Costello’s days as a Tynan-esque angry young man. Now 61, he has mellowed into relaxed anecdotage. Songs, mainly strummed with vigour on acoustic or electric guitar, were introduced with entertaining tales. Some were fanciful, such as the yarn about a failed Mexican elopement that preceded “Accidents Will Happen”. Others memorialised his family of musicians, most notably his father Ross MacManus, a dance band singer and trumpeter.
The range of music was vast, reflecting Costello’s immensely varied career, from composer of acidic post-punk gems to collaborator with Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint. “You know I can’t turn it off,” he sang at the start. The set duly encompassed American songbook standards, New Orleans blues, a scrappy series of US roots-rockers played with support act Larkin Poe and solo versions of back catalogue favourites. Highlights included a dramatic “Shipbuilding” at the piano and a paranoiacally noisy “Watching the Detectives” on electric guitar.
Costello’s best songs are a pop classicist’s dream, dazzling formal exercises in melody and wordplay. There is nothing garrulous about them. But his show suffered from too many detours. The non-chronological structure, shared with the memoir, proved frustrating, with threads picked up and discarded seemingly at whim. A fascinating life in music was illuminated only in fits and starts.