Review of concert from 1978-03-07, Toronto, El Mocambo Club
- Charles Shaar Murray
ON THE TOWN
Holocaust in microcosm Elvis and the Attractions: they love them live in TorontoElvis Costello and the Attractions EL MOCAMBO, TORONTO
Report: Charles Shaar Murray * Pix: Chalkie Davies
"HEY ELVIIIIIIS!!!" There's this blonde gumdrop down the front, see, shaking it down in that demure stoned way that hippie girls seem to favour, and she's splitting her throat to scream at the singer in the band every time he prowls in her direction.
"ELVIIIIIIS!!! OVER HERE, ELVIS!!!!"
It's the second of two nights at the El Mocambo in Toronto, the last date of Elvis Costello's seven-week tour of the North American continent. El Mocambo is a funky little rock-and-roll dive that got famous when the Stones cut the blues side of "Love You Live" there last year or whenever it was.
Anyway, since then the place has received added emoluments of sheer, unadulterated glaamuh that, thankfully, hasn't disguised the fact El Mocambo is a sweathog of a club that has rock-and-roll dripping out of the walls. One of those places that get explosive any time the band is even halfway decent.
And this is Elvis' last date on the tour, so he and the Attractions are tossing every last iota of energy that they've got left into the pot, chucking in the energy by the handful knowing that after this one they get to rest up all they want . . . until the U.K. tour starts, that is, and then after that there's another international binge and then - woweee, gang - they get all of two weeks off at the end of July and then they go through the whole palaver once again.
But for now they're burning up the last of the fuel and the place is going totally pineapples and . . .
"HERE, ELVIS!!! HEY, ELVIS!!!! OVAH HEEYAAAAAAHH!!!"
And Costello's hanging off his mike stand, brows beetling and eyes bugging behind his cheaters as the Attractions bear down on that menacing descending figure from "Chelsea".
The gumdrop moves in like a tank and, producing a handkerchief from somewhere or other, she begins, with a brutal sweetness reminiscent of an O.D. on golden syrup, to taub the sweat from Costello's brow.
Dab . . . dab . . . dab.
Costello stays rigidly immobile at his mike. Maybe his eyes bulge a little more.
Over by the mixing desk, Jake Riviera takes a heroic plug on his vodka and grapefruit, watches the ongoing wipesies situation and covers his eyes.
"Oh no," he moans. "Well over the top, this. Damned bad. You won't mention that, will you?"
"C'mon, Jake," I say. "Would I do a thing like that?"
The hippie girl ceases her ministrations and Costello moves back into the song.
The Attractions are a band of sufficient calibre to allow Costello to do whatever he wants to do - or to hold down the song when Costello's guitar packs up on him, which it's been doing with alarming frequency during the preceding few dates - and still stay on the case.
There's Pete Thomas on the drums, formerly of Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, John Stewart and The Wilko Johnson Band (though that's a dark little episode indeed), the epitome of cleancut whompin' stompin' powerdrive.
Bruce Thomas - formerly of The Sutherland Brothers And Quiver - plays bass in a manner that enables him to oscillate between the rhythm section and the front line or even occupy both territories simultaneously. He plays a lot like Rick Kemp, with whom he used to compete for sessions and whose salmon-pink Fender Precision bass he plays.
On keyboards is Steve Naive, a 20-year-old drop-out from the Royal College Of Music and all-purpose mutant.
He can pick up and learn any style, riff or lick virtually overnight and lose any solid object known to mankind with equal alacrity. He has lost more cigarette lighters on this tour than most people own in a lifetime, and according to tour scuttlebutt he's been knocking down enough pussy these last few weeks to make Warren Beatty or Phil Lynott feel inadequate.
The surreal washes, robotic bleeps and outrageous quotes that he inserts into the music complement Costello's idiosyncratic singing and guitar and the rhythm section's two-fisted power and tigerish agility with almost alarming appropriateness.
What I'm saying is that Mr. Costello has himself one screaming lulu of a band, an aggregation worthy of what he puts in front of it; one capable of outpunching most of the competition on their own turf and then moving with almost ludicrous ease into territories where lesser bands would never dare to tread.
It's during the knife-edge riotous finale of "I'm Not Angry" - with virtually the entire population of the club raising their fists and yelling "Ang-gree!!!" along with the band on the trade-offs - that it becomes apparent that the British New Wave has produced an exportable proto-superstar, possibly the most sophisticated British music that Americans and Canucks et al can connect with since David Bowie himself.
Costello can reach people who'd never understand The Clash in a million years.
He's capable of getting as big as Elton and Frampton and Fleetwood Mac and The Bee Gees (in case you haven't noticed, it's the Brothers Gibb's turn to be the biggest act in the history of the universe . . . for this month, anyway) without having to compromise his music by one iota. Like Dylan or Bowie or Neil Young.
ANYWAY, time and space wait for no man, and you want to know what the show's like and later for the long-range forecasts, so let's get on the case.
The intensive experience of long-haul touring in the U.S.A. can have several different effects on a band.
It can flat-out exhaust them, make them hate the sight and sound of each other, break 'em on the wheel. It can make them go for the easy option, bludgeoning audiences into submission with volume, trick lighting, crowd-pleasing shortcuts and the boogie truncheon.
Or it can tighten and focus their energy to a fearsome degree and train 'em up into the fittest fighting shape possible, which is what's happened to Elvis and his boys.
On the Stiff tour - which was the last time I saw 'em - they got their heads down and socked the songs to the audience as fast as possible, rushing through the set at a ferociously punky rate of knots that was fashionable and impressive but did the songs something of a disservice.
Also, Costello's belligerent eschewing of the majority of the "My Aim Is True" material meant for a shortage of immediate reference points for the audience.
Apart from the enormously powerful theatrical set-piece built around "I'm Not Angry", Costello hardly seemed to notice the audience at all.
That's all changed now.
The current show is a super-tight package of Costello faves old and new - with a hidden masterstroke in the shape and form of an entirely new set of lyrics to "Less Than Zero" written specifically for U.S. audiences who misunderstood the original song because they thought that "Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo" referred to Lee Harvey Oswald instead of Sir Oswald Mosley (God, the kind of people who can get a knighthood in this country).
So Elvis took 'em at their word and rewrote the song so that now it does refer to ol' Lee, and maaaaaaaan, you shoulda seen the faces of all the hip kids who were all fired up to sing along when Elvis hit 'em with the new words.
If they get around to it, a live version of the U.S. edition of "Less Than Zero" will be included as a bonus extra B-side on Elvis' next single. I hope they do it.
AND listen, don't worry about success in a U.S. diluting Costello's mordant passion: his singing and picking - and the playing of every member of the band - now rock harder and tougher than ever, a raw nerve striking back.
His performance of "The Beat" is holocaust in microcosm; "Lipstick Vogue" reaches a dervish intensity that leaves you caught up in a sonic whirlpool and staring straight into the awful stillness at the eye of the hurricane and before you can even readjust your ears it segues into a version of "Watching The Detectives" that makes the studio cut sound like The Brotherhood Of Man jamming with The Dooleys after seventeen hours of chasing mandies with meths.
What I mean is it's good, Jack.
Bruce Thomas strikes every guitar-hero pose in the book with charming elan while Elvis throws tortured, splay-footed, knock-kneed shapes and makes a Fender Jazzmaster do things that the makers never intended. Naive just does insane keyboard stuff that leaves Ray Manzarek right back at the starting post next to Dave Greenfield.
Something's happening. I don't care what else goes down this year: Elvis Costello and The Attractions are the band to watch.
Everybody else is so far behind that they'd have to double their speed just to choke on his dust.