Almost 30 years ago, I picked up a cassette that change my life. A photocopied yellow insert listed a whole load of unreleased, well call a spade a spade, bootlegged tracks. A singer songwriter I was already in awe of, but singing tracks a la Billy Bragg. Man and guitar and nothing else.
20 years later, the cassette long mangled and gone, the same tracks appeared as a "Bonus disc" on a CD I got for Xmas, and my love affair started again. Elvis Costello, one man and just a guitar, sounded better than any studio produced album I had ever heard.
Last night, courtesy of the annual middle class festival that is Kew the Music, Elvis was back on stage. I had bought the tickets partly because I go most years (Human League, Bjorn Again and Kid Creole all having featured), partly because I wanted my daughters to get more into Elvis Costello than they already are, but mainly because I saw him 20 years ago at the Albert Hall, having missed seeing him backing Bob Dylan in Brixton due to some dodgy tickets, and I really fancied seeing him again. I had missed the recent "Singing Songbook" Revolver tour, a wheel of fortune romp through his back catalogue, and could not turn up this chance.
Being a support act is a little like being Vice President of the United States: About as much use as a bucketful of warm spit (According to John Nance Garner, holder of the office between 1933 and 1941, at any rate). Frankly, no-one has come to see you, but mostly it's a good way of getting exposure, although I remember seeing Big Country backing The Jam in 1982: It's lucky the crowd weren't armed, as they may not have enjoyed their mildly successful later career.
The night kicked off with Larkin Poe, who are actually Elvis' long-time backing singers (two sisters from the Deep South (Atlanta, not Gipsy Hill)). Nice Southern sound. And that's about all I remember. Sometimes it would be great to get a set list as you walk in so you can tick off that one song you quite enjoyed but can't remember what it's called (if the PA even let you hear what was said) - Soundhound, not unsurprisingly, failed me.
Next up was a much more interesting proposition: the MacManus Brothers. Yes, DP MacManus is the name that Elvis went by before adopting his stage name, and we had on the same billing for the first time, three out of five of the brothers.
And how spooky it is that they sound like the man himself. There is no reason for genes to be that specific.
A few good tunes, and one great one, aimed at all of us how wanted to hit the big time in our twenties, but let life get in the way. "Stone in my Shoe" should be an anthem for about half of the people in the audience last night who ever picked up a guitar, the "stone" being that itch that never got properly scratched, a music career and Top of the Pops.
But on to the main event. EC himself.
Blow me away, but there is not band. No Attractions, no Imposters, no touring band. Just Elvis Costello, 6 guitars, and a keyboard.
Within minutes, I was transported back to the day I first heard that cassette, hit after hit stripped back to basics, and every one sounding better than the original.
"The Angels (Want to Wear my Red Shoes)", "Accidents Will Happen", "Green Shirt", and "Either Side of the Same Town", one after the other, keeping up my 100% record of knowing all of the songs. Then, from time to time, a little off-piste with a few more obscure numbers, but with a song book that is in the hundreds you can allow a bit of self-indulgence (or reviewer's ignorance)
One bum note, quite literally. "New Amsterdam" sounded like the brain was tuned differently to the guitar. A weird lapse in an otherwise great performance.
After about 45 minutes, he bounded off stage for a few seconds to return to sit down at the keyboard for just one song: "Shipbuilding", probably the one song of the night that could not have been done on the guitar. Elvis is no keyboard player, and so gave us just a handful of Hammond chords to carry to the tune, but it is testament to the true brilliance of the song that it just didn't matter. A true tear jerker.
But nothing compared to when the stage started to fill up, first with just the MacManus Brothers and then with Larkin Poe as well. Harmony layered on harmony: Guitar layered on guitar.
"What a Good Year for the Roses" is not one the greatest songs in his canon. A bit too steel guitar twangy for my liking. But to see all three brothers harmonising together, and then for Elvis to step out, and for it to still sound like him singing was one of the most moving musical moments I have ever witnessed. What a shame the brothers don't jam together a bit more often.
After a few heartfelt hugs, the two brothers stepped off stage, and the tempo upped a bit, helped along by Larkin Poe's mandolin and steel guitar.
And for the big close?
Like every Kew the Music, there is always (literal but not indoor) fireworks. A spectacular display, played out with "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding", a fittingly high-energy end to a fantastic concert.
A small note to the organisers: Pick a bigger spot. The concert venue has been moved around the gardens over the years, and last year there was actually enough room for most of the picnickers to get a spot and see the stage. This year, once you had crammed in the food stalls, the sponsors, the bar, the toilets and the (much hated) "VIP" area at the front of the stage (not a lot of moshing there), there was room for 4 picnic rugs and a hamper. With 300 acres to choose from, there has to be a better way!
The views expressed in this blog post are my own, and are not in any way connected with Intelligent Voice