Elvis Costello and the Imposters at Bath Forum 17.6.2022 with Ian Prowse supporting
A first visit to Bath Forum and to see a man I’ve enjoyed listening to since I was 14 years old.
My early Elvis years
I bought the Elvis Costello and the Attractions break through single Watching the Detectives and albums followed, starting with the classic and my favourite This Year’s Model (from The Squeeze Inn at Ashford Common parade, near Bobby Davro’s dad’s discount store with some birthday money); backfilling with My Aim is True and being up the shops promptly when the next two were released (Armed Forces and Get Happy)….. and off I went, dipping in and out with CD aquisitions and with some fallow periods. King of America is one that passed me by initially later finding it one of the best. Knowing I was coming to this Bath gig, I’ve given the recent Boy Named If a good play and I like it a lot.
As for the live experiences, they’ve been a bit sparse, given my Elvis enthusiasm. I applied for tickets to see him, with the Attractions, at Hammersmith Odeon in the late 70s. It was the old stamped, self-addressed envelope, postal order and letter in my best handwriting. I waited. The instantly recognisable, self-addressed envelope arrived: I opened it in anticipation of what would have been my first ever gig. My letter bore a heartless rubber stamped ‘SOLD OUT’ and my unused postal order dropped out. A huge disappointment that left its mark. I moved on to other live band priorities.
It wasn’t until Glastonbury 1987 that I caught up with him. He played what seemed like a full but short set, including a memorable and passionate version of Tramp the Dirt Down, spitting the words out into a misty night. I was right down the front with my mate Sean (SMu). Returning for ‘an encore’, he announced “ladies and gentlemen…The Attractions” before a curtain dropped and revealed the full band, then they all continued for another set.
It was another seven year wait until I saw him in November 1994 at Wolverhampton Civic Hall (with mate Chris and our ex-wives) and then jump to May 2015 for a bit of a disappointing gig with Elvis solo at Salisbury City Hall (with wife Sally and a friend). Which Elvis will be at the Bath Forum tonight?
(Here in Bath with wife Sally as a warm up for gig buddy Dave’s BIG birthday celebrations – Dave and Big Gra are sat nearer the mixing desk with wives Ann and Hils.)
The Forum, Bath
This is a big, old and very grand art deco cinema building, which opened in 1934. A modest capacity of 1640 seats, not too distant to the back of the stalls and a large overhanging, steep balcony.
I like the ability to stand up at the back behind the seats, unchallenged, with a clear view and a convenient escape from nearby irritants. As we’re near the rear anyway this is very welcome. Tonight I have a tall couple, flown in from Love Island🙄, to sit in front of me on the end of the row – I peer through the regularly closing gap between them. They in turn endure the Yo-Yo family, a foursome with either an insatiable thirst for alcohol, multiple bladder disorders or both. Up and down. Up and down. Yes, the rear standing option is very welcome.
The bars are just about functional. They are upstairs – little more than large hall areas with several orderly long lines at both. The queues look terrible but move at a decent pace. Functional: nothing more.
I’ve been looking forward to this – Elvis again. I’ve just not seen him enough for it to be routine, despite my long-term admiration. I know he can be difficult live – reviews of his recent Liverpool appearance were terrible due largely to the sound.. Which one is turning up here?
Support: Ian Prowse
Support is from Ian Prowse, in a four piece band. The lead singer with bands Amsterdam and previously Pele; he’s a friend of Costello and has recorded a cover with him; supported him several times and his band was the house backing band on The Jonathan Ross Show when Costello appeared. A short easy listen of a set with some folky violin and a song that was worth some more plays later: Does This Train Stop on Merseyside. (Studio YouTube clip.)
Elvis Costello tonight
On comes Elvis. The excitement turns to horror as he starts with a car crash of a version of Accidents Will Happen. The sound appears all over the place with over-dominant keyboards in plinky plonk mode. Green Shirt is a big improvement but the sound is not good early on – I thought it improved as we went on but that wasn’t a unanimous view.
Costello live does have that deliberately breathy and hesitant style, pulling back from the mic making the vocal so quiet at times – hushes as we strain to hear – before bouncing back with that beautifully distinctive raspy voice. “Turn it up” screams a voice from near the mixing desk a few times.
Watching the Detectives is better – again a version, another song, Invisible Girl, injected into it but it works. What a classic.
The height of my disappointment was Brilliant Mistake, the brilliant opening track from the King of America album. Wrecked. Red Shoes – all a bit slow and slurred.
The relief as he just plays a song just like he recorded it. Clear and loud enough – Mr Crescent, from the latest Boy Named If record. Love it. There you go – just play the songs. I suppose he gets bored of knocking out the old stuff in the same way, so gives it the real live experience by experimenting. As every song starts there is that nervous anticipation of what’s happening next. He does comment about playing what he wants and hoping we like it.
He is chatty. Lots of introductory commentary. I was wondering about The Attractions and The Imposters backing band transition but as he points out there is only one of the Attractions that changed, and that was 20 years ago: it’s still Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on keyboards. They were all here back when Costello last played Bath…. in 1979!
Things do improve massively later in the set, and I do like the new album material live.
(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea hits the spot along with another from This Year’s Model, captured here from my temporary rear standing position – Pump It Up.
It’s a two and a half hour set all told with the main set finished beautifully with What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding – a song that need to find its place again.
He said he didn’t do encores but tonight proceeds to return a few more times, after bows and goodbyes.
The Man You Love To Hate he introduced as being written about himself. Another more conventionally delivered recent album track that sounded great. There was Wings cover in there Let Me Roll It, recognising Paul McCartney’s birthday this weekend.
Song of the night? Hard to top Alison I guess, with the ‘other sticky valentines’ who were sat in front of us – I was stood at the back again by this stage thank goodness.
The end was a song I wasn’t familiar with, but a belter: All Cowards Now (2020 Hey Clockface album). It seemed like Costello was taking extra care to ensure the lyrics were right out there, clear and angry.
“The emptiness of arms
The openness of thighs
The pornography of bullets
The promises and prizes can’t disguise
We are all cowards now
They’re draping stones with colours
And a roll of stolen names
Except those we never cared about
And those we need to blame
We’ll extinguish that flame, just the same
We’re all cowards now……
…So, close the windows tightly
Lower lamps and shades
On the screen, silent rehearsals
For tomorrow’s parades
For tomorrow’s parades
For tomorrow’s parades
We are all cowards now”
(Elvis Costello 2020)