Live Review: Elvis Costello And The Imposters @ Sydney Opera House Concert Hall

2 April 2024 | 11:13 am | Shaun Colnan

It felt like vintage Costello. It could’ve been the late 70s...

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello (Credit: Mark Seliger)

Time can be a painful thing - especially when it’s thrust upon a stage, casting a mirror back out into the audience. The ferocity and force, the raw witticism and spitfire criticism seem to have tempered since the heyday of Punk. But, of course, it has. The world has moved on. 

Elvis has moved on. One left the building almost half a century ago while the other, Elvis Costello And The Imposters, filled out the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall for a nostalgic romp through an impressive back catalogue. 

Things fall apart with time, so we find new means of coping. Costello’s voice lacks the vivacity that previously allowed him to bounce from verbose verse to verbose verse. So, while the band keeps time, his lyric trails behind in the backbeat past the backbeat. 

This was certainly apparent in Jack Of All Parades from Elvis’ 1986 record King Of America. The lyric trailed behind the instrumentation, bloated and staggering. Punchlines were pushed into the next bar, an accidental enjambment that haunted each song. 

Perhaps that’s always been part of Elvis’ charm: the haphazardness, the chaos of the lyrics, which—due to its loquacity—spills out and breaks down the 4/4 order of the poppier elements that make Elvis’ music unique. On Accidents Will Happen from Costello’s 1979 album Armed Forces, the verses were filibusters butting up against the relatively sparse chorus, making it difficult to sing along to.

Still, the opening line from Elvis’ popular yet retired track, Oliver’s Army - “Don’t start the talking, I could talk all night” - perfectly captures Elvis’ impulse. He filled silences between songs with comments like: “I got this guitar here, so I’m gonna do this song here.”

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Costello dove into a few unreleased songs that he wrote for the 2016 musical A Face In The Crowd, based on Budd Schulberg's story originally published as Your Arkansas Traveler. The first, Big Stars Have Tumbled, included a lukewarm call-and-response, featuring the line, “How I made you call my name…” met by a smattering of “Elvisss…” ringing out.

Costello took to the grand piano on the second one to the tune of “Go Elvis, go Elvis!” from a shaky female voice in the crowd. The witty Brit retorted, “I’m singing this one just for you… cause you gotta watch the back of my head.” The title track from that musical, A Face In The Crowd, is a self-described “theme song of a hard drinking, pill popping womaniser.”  

Costello provided this preface for the third track from the musical: “If I ever ran for office, I’d need a campaign song and luckily I have one”. Blood & Hot Sauce satirises American patriotism by infusing it with a harangue on American charlatanism, a clever melange meditating on the rotten state of the union.

In keeping with the nostalgia, Costello introduced the track, Mistook Me For A Friend, from his 2022 album, The Boy Named If, in this way: “This is about when I was a young man and I was finding my way around the world. I was in a strange town… it might’ve been Wollongong, or it might’ve been New York… and I was in a club at 2 am, and they were playing that awful New Wave music… and then it was 3 am, and I had keys to a car, but I didn’t drive and keys to a house but it wasn’t mine, and so I wrote this song.”

It felt like vintage Costello. It could’ve been the late 70s if it weren’t for the cracking voice and the awkward harmonies. 

It’s easy to see why the concert went for 150 minutes when the band launched into a sprawling version of Watching The Detectives. A cosmic slop of Two Tone and New Wave with heavy bass, messy crying guitar licks and decay on the already decayed vocals. Indigo lights burned while Elvis varied the theme, suddenly packing two lines into one, reversing the trend of elongation in a moment of lyrical lucidity.

Next came an erudite meditation on a cover: acoustic guitar in hand, Costello sat on a stool and quipped, “It’s at times like this when you quote the philosophers… Jean-Luc Godard or Jean-Paul SartreBrigitte BardotPlatoSocrates… Great in the midfield for Brazil… skip over all of them, and you get to Mose Allison.” This was the welcome mat to Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy from the album The Sage Of Tippo

Then, Costello held up a trophy and said, “I got this in Texas—what he called “The Jimmy Durante Award.” Continuing the comedy, he remarked, “I’d like to thank the academy…it was on account of resemblance.” This led to the opening track on his 1986 album, Brilliant Mistake.

Good Year For The Roses led into a homage to The Specials with a melodica-heavy rendition of Ghost Town. This seemed to drive the set towards its zenith with Everyday I Write The Book and a five-song encore, which included I Don’t Want To Go To ChelseaPump It Up and What’s So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding? 

As well as this, the enduring jilted ballad: Alison, which Costello provided a backstory for: “When I first came to these shores, I followed in the footsteps of many of my ancestors… they said you’ve got 37 minutes of music, and we could get that down to 25 minutes before people start throwing things.

“So, we used to not play this… because it would make it too easy for the girls to like us… but it was actually because I couldn’t play the opening guitar - I didn’t have enough fingers…” What he lacked in fingers and vocal chops, he made up for in unifying an Easter egg-heavy Sunday night crowd.