John Cooper Clarke / Elvis Costello / Squeeze - Albany Empire, London
Having a Tommy Cooper style conjurer as a warm-up seems to make perfect sense in what was once an old music hall, though after its tragic petrol bombing it's now something more like a cross between a cock fighting pit and a sauna.
On an already unbearably humid night the air is choked with sweat, drawing beer faster from the pores than the rapidly desiccated bar. A party spirit is in the air. A closer look provokes an indulgence of fanciful speculation the man on the stage looks remarkably like Leonard Rossitter and, wait a minute, it says "surprise guests" on the ticket. And I'd swear that’s John Cooper Clarke lurking near the entrance.
Now he's taken the stage and he's telling a dirty story about General Custer's last stand. Christ, how does he get his hair to stand up higher than Harry Spencer's in “Eraserhead”? Can he really be John Cooper Clarke? Well, yes. Glistening from pearls of perspiration he deals out a few more gags before introducing one “Otis Westinghouse And The Lifts,” who launch into a reeling version of “I Can't Stand Up.” Well, waddy’know? It’s Elvis Costello And The Attractions looking as pleased and confidently relaxed as they did on their last tour.
Just when you're trying to get over the feeling able to see the man himself from a few feet and dance at the same time, a message filters up from the feet to rapidly shrinking, scorched brain cells — this band is playing at a formidable intensity while exercising the kind of control Booker T. would have been proud of.
A decent sized chunk of his last album follows, as well as two new songs which come from a similar Stax direction, although the titles are drowned out by the braying of a collection of minor-league Deptford gangsters obviously worried by any kind of musical adventure. Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” is delivered with the panache that exudes effortlessly from Costello's magnificent soul-pop band along with “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”, “Accidents Will Happen”, “Watching The Detectives” and “Pump It Up.”
Assured of his crown, Elvis remarks. “This one takes just a little less time to perform than it takes to read Dexy’s press statements” prior to a sublime rendering of “New Amsterdam.” The real soul rebels leave the stage refusing to come back, making way for some classic pop on the disco.
Squeeze eventually appear. It's a fitting epitaph for their departing keyboard artist Jools Holland who walked on to a rapturous welcome; though after a few numbers, including “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” and “Slap 'n' Tickle”, you can't- help but wonder what sort of favour Elvis had paid them by appearing. After all, who would choose to follow an act like that?
However, the boys are on their home turf playing to dedicated followers in a hall where they first proved their worth and they duly whip through all their hit singles, except “Up The Junction”. The one reservation is the weak vocals, but that's a minor complaint, and the band get by more than adequately on sheer enthusiasm and their rich stock of memorable songs. Gil Lavis hammers the drum into easy submission and Jools demonstrates that the remaining members will be hard pressed to find a worthy replacement.
As things scorch to a climax you can be forgiven for thinking the sprinkler system has been turned on as water oozes down walls and faces. “It's almost too hot to dance,” cries Glen Tilbrook.
Virtually the whole cast join in for “There At The Top” after wild frolickers spray the ensemble with a spaghetti-like aerosol spray, creating a scene like a Hammer horror flick. And yes - everybody does get happy.