ELVIS COSTELLO, Brand New Zeros @Symphony Hall, Birmingham 31/5/15


Elvis takes care of this and that, as his Detour Tour stops off in Birmingham – and brings probably the longest encore in history with it

The Brand New Zeros are a four piece band from London, so new that their debut album isn’t out yet. How a group – or at least part of them, with only two appearing here as they are playing acoustic – so new bagged a slot with a British music legend rather is explained by the surname of one of them: McManus. Ronan, is the brother of the fella that he repeatedly calls “the man himself” throughout the set. Having a sibling that goes by the stage name Elvis Costello might open doors, but you have to have the talent to keep them from slamming shut. Brand New Zeros can score here as they deal – for the most part – in dark acoustic folky pop. “Bullet In The Heart” is a heartfelt tale of love gone wrong, “I Love You But You Don’t Exist” is rather explained by its title, as is “Save Your Sorry.” BNZ save their own best for last, never mind apologies. “Double Whiskey Single Woman” adds a swampy blues like feel to the melancholy, and is all the better for it. More in this vein might make that unreleased record an interesting proposition.

Between the two acts tonight the big screen which adorns the stage and made to look like a TV (the stage is done up to look like it’s a living room) is playing Elvis Costello videos. The man himself – to borrow his brothers phrase – runs onstage and says: “well, you’ve seen the hits now, you might as well go home…..”

What he means is this: This is the third time in the very recent past that Elvis Costello has been in this room. The previous two involved an enormous stage show, dancing girls, wheels of fortune and a spectacle. They were brilliant. This tour isn’t that. This is Elvis Costello on his own, just a man, his guitar and a phenomenal back catalogue.

His work is suited to this reworking. Costello is arguably the greatest singer/songwriter we have ever produced in this country, as well as a fine storyteller. This is his chance to combine the two, which he does admirably.

A very lengthy set begins with “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and highlights in the first half include a heartbreaking “Shipbuilding” which is given a real wonderful haunting quality at the piano, “Watching The Detectives” which is turned into a psychedelic thing drenched in feedback and clever loops and a superb cover of “When I Write The Book” which appears to conclude things.

Not a bit of it. The main attraction is only just getting started. The myriad encores go on for nearly an hour.

He returns, with his brother, and with footage of their father playing on the screen behind, for “A Good Year For The Roses” and “Oliver’s Army” which still drips with emotion and bile after all these years.

The second encore – on his own this time – is really clever. Costello appears in the TV. Neatly tying up a story he’d told earlier about when his Dad appeared at The Royal Command Performance, for a trio which includes “Alison” and “Pump It Up.” The symbolism of Elvis being back on tele is surely laden with sarcasm and a hint to his days on Top Of The Pops.

Encore number three is different again. Costello is at the piano. A cover of Cliff Edwards’ “Side By Side” is followed by a complete reworking of “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down,” before he’s back with a guitar in hand and a poignant “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” with his grandfathers picture on screen behind him.

And it’s still not over. At least not until encore number four, of what – lyrically at least – has become his signature song “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love And Understanding? This sees Ronan and Luke Dolan from Brand New Zeros on stage. It seems to sum up a warm show that is full of life and fun.

Playing acoustically must be one of the hardest things a musician can do. Laid bare, it sees you out on a limb and having to rely on yourself to pull things off. You need to be a special person to do it at all. To do it this well, you need to have some of the best songs of their type ever written and a career that many would kill for. Tonight, you needed to be Elvis Costello.

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