Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham – 24th April 2009


So the ticket says 7:30pm. But that would be doors open, or the time for an uninspiring support act to start surely: headline artists never start at the time on the ticket.. do they? Well the PA is announcing that Elvis has entered the building and he will be on stage at 7:30. So choking on my drink at 7:27, I quickly make my way to my seat as the lights go down, and sure enough Mr Costello and The Brodsky Quartet are making their way centre stage. It is painfully clear that others too were fooled by the artists’ impeccable timekeeping, as in between the first four songs, groups of latecomers are shown to their seats. A real shame as the show was faultless from beginning to end.

I have to admit I am an old school Elvis C fan, through the late 70’s and 80’s he seemed unstoppable. And then in 1993 he went classical and seemed to almost simultaneously alienate himself; not rock enough and not classical enough. At the time I thought this would be a long slippery slope into the realms of ‘the rock star thinks he is a classical composer’ and just ends up an embarrassment (Paul McCartney?). Thankfully Costello is such a massive talent and still lyrically has much to say (unlike Macca), he could not fail to keep writing great pop songs, and his album releases over the last 10 years are proof of this.

And now Mr Elvis Costello is taking his enormous back catalogue, along with the 1993 collaboration with the Brodskys (The Juliet Letters) and performing new arrangements in an uncomplicated set up of just the five musicians; accompanying himself at times of guitar, but mainly just singing. The Symphony Hall’s setting is perfect for this as the acoustics allow Elvis at times to not use a microphone at all, as his vocal presence is powerful enough to sore up and out from the stage into the cavernous hall with great clarity.


My prayers are answered as the show begins and ‘Accidents Will Happen’ suddenly appears from an almost unrecognisable re-arranged introduction. It is a perfect song for such a classical treatment as in its original incarnation it is more than just a pop song. It has great intelligence and sections that could be described as more than just verse and chorus, perfect for this reinvention. When you reach the outro with the lead violin played by Daniel Rowland echoing the phrase “I know” being sang by Elvis, you feel that a great song remains a great song with new arrangements drawing out the inherent harmonies and giving an opportunity to emphasize the natural dynamics, when these are sometimes suppressed to make a good pop record.

This is further enforced by great renditions of other early Elvis Costello classics, ‘Pills and Soap’, ‘New Lace Sleeves’, ‘All This Useless Beauty’, ‘Rocking Horse Road’ (in which they manage somehow to segue a section based around The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ without it sounding tacky) and also a beautiful version of ‘Shipbuilding’. Many of the evenings arrangement were created by Paul Cassidy (viola) to stunning effect, but as Elvis introduces this version he proudly announces this to be his own arrangement (albeit based around the notes played in the original version’s sublime trumpet solo by the late great Chet Baker). This is clearly evident in the musical passages as those haunting notes float between Ian Belton’s violin and Jacqueline Thomas’ cello; I can almost hear the delay used on the recorded version as the notes float around the room. You can tell from Elvis Costello’s performance that he too is enamored by the acoustic qualities of the room as every once in a while he moves away from the microphone and sings up into the high ceilings of the hall, the reverb carrying off his voice into every corner.


In between the more well known tracks comes stunning performances from The Juliet Letters that illustrate perfectly that Elvis Costello was right all along; not only did he have the strength of character and talent to embark on the project over fifteen years ago, he still has the presence and vocal command to stand shoulder to shoulder with the masters of the string quartet on a stage built for orchestras. There are times when he stands and struts like an opera singer, other times when he leaves his place behind the rock stars’ obligatory last line of defense (the mike stand), and it is here where you feel he is only one small step away from being his father, when Macmanus senior was the voice of the Joe Loss Orchestra.

The audience are close to hysteria after Elvis leaves the stage to a standing ovation and he duly returns for a further three encores, each song greeted with cheers and thunderous applause. The whole time I am praying that we are treated to ‘Alison’ or ‘Everyday I Write the Book’, but alas no; when a man has such a strong collection of material stretching over 30 years, it would be impossible to include everything. And then the house lights go up and it is clear Elvis has now left the building. But with his new album ‘Secret, Profane and Sugarcane’ due out 1 June, there is much more to come I am certain of that: Elvis Costello may change his musical forms like he changes his underwear, but his talent for writing and performing great songs is something as constant as his horn-rimmed glasses and receding hairline (and he still manages to look the coolest of all the aging popstars… is there nothing this man cannot achieve?!) I for one cannot wait to see what he does next.

Review – Alan Neilson
Photos – Adam Spall

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