For many years now, Bob Dylan has been on what is known as the “Never Ending Tour”. Constantly globe trotting, he has been tackling material, both new and old, in his own idiosyncratic way with a bunch of crack musicians. Often the ride is bumpy but when he re-imagines a time-worn classic in a new way, often it sheds light on a different aspect of the song. The downside is that the audience, looking for favourites in the set, can feel short changed when this approach doesn’t work. “It doesn’t sound like the record” is the oft heard cry.
On the basis of the Roundhouse gig, an argument could be made for Elvis Costello being the closest thing that Britain has to Dylan, although not necessarily in a totally positive way.
At the gig, Elvis Costello approached his back catalogue in the same way, with similarly mixed results. Yet again the appalling sound quality at the Roundhouse didn’t help his cause. The highs just about topped the lows and thankfully the set had sufficient quality to mostly cut through this but, man, when it was bad – it was awful. Unfortunately Costello’s occasionally casual relationship with pitch plus the alternative phrasing used for many of the songs didn’t help either.
Costello was straight out of the blocks with “Big Tears” and “No Action”. It was the more raw songs that were most affected by the poor sound. His vocals were mixed way to high, there was a shrill treble to all of the instruments and the bass was an indistinct mush. For a band without the Imposers musical chops, it may have been a way of hiding a multitude of sins. For a band of Costello’s quality, it seemed an almost criminal waste of talent. A leaden trudge through the Beach Boys’ “Wild Honey” segued into a dull “Other Side of Summer” and the evening was off to a sluggish start.
Things picked up with “Watching The Detectives” which had a number of dramatic pauses. What really helped though was the spare arrangement which allowed the musicians space to breathe. This was a consistent theme through the evening. The songs that really worked best were those with light and shade. “Clubland”, the queasy carousel waltz of “Sunday’s Best” and “New Lace Sleeves” were the best example of this from the classic era. The newer material worked well in this regard. “Flutter and Wow” from “Momofuko” and “Stations Of The Cross” from “National Ransom” were particular highlights. Unfortunately the Bo Diddley beat of “Bedlam” was a retreat into the sludge of the earlier part of the evening. It wasn’t helped by Elvis’s guitar effects which added a high pitched drone to much of his playing.
The encores introduced more dramatic nuances. Both the press bashing “Pills and Soap” and the anti-war “Shipbuilding” were still sadly relevant. The unreleased “Face In The Crowd”, potentially from a new musical was a treat and he finished with “Man Out Of The Time”, one of my favourite Elvis pun songs (is the title referring to a man who is out of kilter or one who has just run out of road?). The band were uniformly excellent with Steve Nieve on keyboards dressed as Alex the Droog from Clockwork Orange and Pete Thomas on drums still keeping the Attractions vibe alive.
But oh those wasted opportunities. The worst candidate was “Oliver’s Army”. The melody went totally walkabout during the third verse, rendering his most singalong Abba referencing hit dead on its knees. Now I’m a Lou Reed fan, a man who was most guilty of changing meters and melodies for most of his songs. There were untold ways for him to perform “Sweet Jane” but then Lou never really sang. Elvis did though and through the evening this approach to his repertoire was almost wilfully hit and miss and his voice at times strained to maintain the tune.
Back to those sound issues, though. I asked my mate Raymond Gorman who has played many large venues with That Petrol Emotion and his current band The Everlasting Yeah for a view.
From Raymond’s experience, would the band be aware during the performance if the sound is lousy in the venue? How does someone as experienced as EC end up with such appalling sound, given as I understand it, that his engineers are responsible rather than the venue’s?
Ray’s response was as follows:
You’d only be aware of your on stage sound and usually that’s not up to scratch so you just soldier on. I think it’s just the room and a bad room can never be made better. It’s a bit of a mystery but the layout of the Roundhouse room is not conducive to good sound. It’s 2016 all the same, so there must be someone who can sort it.
In conclusion, attend the Roundhouse at your peril and if you are going to an Elvis Costello gig, prepare to take the very rough with the smooth.
Don’t say that you haven’t been warned.