Straying from the usual grunge pathways, last week took me, at the kind invitation of my sister, down to Chelsea* Kew Gardens to see the evergreen Elvis Costello perform as part of the Kew the Music (ba-doom tish) festival.
The setting was delightful. The walk from the tube station takes you across the grubby A307, but once through the entrance gates, the approach to the open-air arena is through the verdant and impeccable Kew Gardens, resplendent on a balmy July evening. Like prize exhibits at a county show, the audience were separated out into different areas – fenced off by small white picket fences – including a picnic area, a dance area in front of the stage (phew), and a John Lewis VIP restaurant. Reclining on the grass, surrounded by picnic hampers full of Waitrose’s finest wares, tartan blankets and those funny folding chairs with the drinks holders in the armrests, you felt like an extra in Midsomer Murders.** The civilised atmosphere was exemplified in the refreshments area by the queues for ice-cream (huge and stoically patient) and alcohol (small and mostly in search of jugs of Pimm’s) and by the stands selling fancy foodstuffs a million miles from the old Donington deathburger.
The stage was set up for minimal instrumentation only and no backing bands; support came from Larkin Poe (whose set we missed), and Ronan and Ruairi MacManus, Costello’s half-brothers. The MacManus Brothers played a respectable folk-rock set, their two acoustic guitars providing background to their well-harmonised voices.
Costello began by thanking the vicar for tea and pop; in genteel surroundings he played a set full of his most familiar songs. The quality of his songwriting, and his voice, shone in his song arrangements, stripped down to just guitar and vocal, though he artfully used loops to add extra layers of guitar to ‘Watching the Detectives’ among others. His songs quietly and tenaciously maintained their political edge, most notably ‘Shipbuilding’, whilst he also charmed the crowd with his musical and familial digressions (he grew up in Twickenham, making this something of a return concert).
Costello was joined onstage for the encore, first by Ronan and Ruairi MacManus, and then also by Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe: the former supplied some immaculate fraternal harmonies; the latter’s backing vocals, mandolin and lap steel guitar*** gave the songs a wistful, nostalgic folk-country inflection, most obviously and most aptly on ‘A Good Year for the Roses’. The set finished with ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’, one of the foremost uses of brackets in a song title, and a song guaranteed put a bounce in your step as you leave the venue. There were some slightly half-hearted fireworks mid-song – a needless and ill-timed distraction – but not one that detracted from the quality of the performance onstage.
To my relief, Getty Images have already uploaded photos from the gig. My camera skills remain as hopeless as ever (even more so when I forget to take a camera with me). If you’ve made it this far, to the bottom of my usual ramblings, you’ll be please to know that further, better-written reviews of the gig can be found in The Guardian and the unfailingly witty Every Record Tells a Story.
Setlist: (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, Accidents Will Happen, Green Shirt, Either Side of the Same Town, Veronica, The Last Year of My Youth, New Amsterdam/You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, Jimmie Standing in the Rain, Everyday I Write the Book, Walking My Baby Home, She, Watching the Detectives, Shipbuilding
Encore: Oliver’s Army, My Brave Face, A Good Year for the Roses, Pads, Paws and Claws, Love Field, Hoover Factory, Alison, Long Distance Love, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
* Nope, don’t want to go to Chelsea for this one.
** Granted, Culley wasn’t co-organising the festival, nor was Mrs Barnaby helping out at one of the stalls, nor was anyone bludgeoned to death with a particularly firm stick of celery, beheaded by a Venus fly-trap, or electrocuted by a powerful current cunningly attached to a bottle of crisp dry white, so it would have been an unusual episode.
*** Shamefully, I thought this was the same thing as a dobro (of ‘Ballad of Curtis Loew’ fame). It’s not, although a resonator guitar (a dobro) is commonly played as a lap steel guitar. So there you go.