“Have they listened to his music?” is Q’s first thought on receiving an invitation to see Elvis Costello’s headline set at this year’s Henley On Thames Festival. A relatively recent addition to the places to see music outside in the British summer, this event shadows July’s annual Royal Regatta and while it is as posh as you’d expect from such an arrangement, on first impressions there is a music festival in there, somewhere… Instead of jester hats the event is black tie, jugglers are replaced by high end stylists dressed as French dukes, car park queues are replaced by a succession of boats and motor launches cruising up and down the Thames, while graffiti on Portaloos has been upgraded to a temporary art gallery.
The opening night of this year’s festival was played by Elton John, who’s tantrums and tiaras might seem a better fit, but this evening (7 July) its Elvis’ turn to headline Henley’s floating stage. So what’s a proud anti-Thatcherite to do when playing live in front of this much money (old and new)? Will inter-song banter include the Brexit woes of former local MP Boris Johnson? Could Maggie-bashing track Tramp The Dirt Down be in the set? Well it seems initially the socialist’s answer is to simply share the wealth musically, i.e. play the hits.
Barely pausing for breath, let alone inter-song talk, Elvis backed by his regular band The Imposters dive through the likes of Pump It Up, Watching The Detectives, Radio Radio and High Fidelity, before Costello embraces the (rich) people, jumping into the crowd during Everyday I Write The Book and performing Alison while roaming through the grandstand amongst men in bow ties and women in frocks.
It’s telling that Elvis follows his ‘meet'n'greet’ with Mighty Like A Rose’s Other Side Of Summer, a song of haves and have nots that details how money divides society, allowing the artist a moment of satire while the crowd simply enjoy a dance to his surf sounds.
And it’s subtle subversion rather than open rebellion that wins the day for all concerned. Elvis has his wry smile but it doesn't get in the way of the show, even managing to slip in a few old rarities (Moods For Moderns, Sunday Best), several covers (The Beatles’ Polythene Pam, Dylan’s Lost On The River #12 and The Beach Boys’ Wild Honey) and some experimental work (Roots collaboration Walk Us Up Town) amongst the cavalcade of better known numbers.
Having secured the biggest applause of the night with a solo version of Charles Aznavour’s She which he recorded for the Notting Hill soundtrack, the self-styled “bug-eyed monster from planet guilt and revenge” adds some edge. Subtly of course.
He kicks the encore with Night Rally – a song dealing in fascist rallies and corporate logos – before performing an anti-war anthem Shipbuilding, which seems especially raw and emotional on the day the Chilcot Report was finally published, as Costello’s makes a protest for those who know. Those who don’t happily bowl around to anti-imperialist pop song Oliver’s Army and Nick Lowe’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding? as the night reaches its close.
So Elvis emerges with his soul intact, one-time punks in bowties go home happy and most remarkably of all – despite the dress code and the opulence – we discover that with the right act you can stage an actual music festival anywhere... even on the banks of the Thames during the Henley regatta. Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Henley-festival.co.uk.