To call Elvis Costello a prophet is a gross overstatement. Throughout history, the great men have not been prophets. They have been perfect fits; able to handle reality in a unique and fragile way. The result is beautiful — a personal definition of life, a reason for living, and a gift to leave. Elvis Costello knows this very well, and his music revolves around the theory that you can look at life from its bleakest aspects, and still find the good things about a situation and present an energetic hope along with the paranoic, desperate isolation surrounding his scenarios.
Elvis Costello plays rock 'n' roll. You can hear the fifties, you can smell the sixties, you can live the seventies, and you can sense the eighties. The music is a tribute to meticulousness; a conglomeration of simple sounds that join together and mesh like a 20,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of all black pieces. And in that conglomeration, the simple sounds merge to form a complex example from life's realities. The ill-fated love theme that resounds in "Party Girl," a song off of Armed Forces that Elvis hasn't performed yet. The compilation of humanistic but realistic observations of life in "Accidents Will Happen," a song whose very truthfulness makes it a classic. And Elvis played it to the hilt. He cried it. It was pitiably powerful. He introduced it as his new single, and played it like an anthem. It was unsettling and boggling.
Before that, he was heating up. He leapt on stage after a decent opening act that whetted one's appetite for what was to come. They were called The Rubinoos, and they did justice to The Beatles along with some dapper original material.
Out leapt Elvis, though, black and white sport jacket enrobing him, orange tie choking him, and the telescopic glasses that hide him. He began with unfamiliarity: A new song. He shows off his voice; a good voice that is surprisingly impressing me to an unmentionable degree. His sonic boom erupted through a nicely matched sound system that gave his voice a clarity that freed it to embrace the audience with its claws and enlist an unbreakable concentration that held on until the final notes of "You Belong to Me."
He goes into "Goon Squad." He avoids the intense production of the album and plays it as a straight forward powerhouse. He's performing, he's not just playing. And his voice just won't let go.
He releases with his own pseudo-reggae, and glides into "Two Little Hitters," one of the most cynical poems he has yet sung. He's being less regimented, and allows the reggae some breathing room.
The sequence was well-executed. He wisely sandwiched "Oliver's Army" between two new songs, a move to keep the audience at the level he wanted: interested and intrigued, but thrown off enough with unfamiliarity to prevent friendly association. He was aloof.
"I Don't Want to go to Chelsea" blew me off my feet, and lurching into the masterpiece "Green Shirt" began what was a sort of shifting into high gear, a turn to a more serious note that persisted until at least the encore, where it probably increased its intensity even more.
He highlighted the new album, but he gave equal time to This Year's Model, something I recognize as a brave move and a declaration of independence from the purely commercial aspirations of his record company for this year's tour.
In fact, the last three songs were all from This Year's Model, making it the grand finale of sorts. lie ended the show with a tumultuous version of "Radio Radio," and left, stunning the audience by walking away before even an hour, not even half-time for most normal lengthed shows. The lights leapt on, and some recorded music was played at a low volume. A good percentage filed out, but for others, there wasn't any way to move.
He came back on again, and performed an encore that put all of the elements together that invent a great artist and a great show. He raged through the explosive "Pump it Up" with a new fire; the fire of a classic voice that has been developing with the ascent of his genius. And from that he crept into "You Belong to Me," a subtle, definitive mode for an attitude that exemplifies him; not a loser, but not a winner, struggling but secure, dangerous, yet gentle.
And the showmanship was exquisite. The lighting was a bit Bowiesque. Using fluorescent, neon, and plain white lighting with colored screens, he availed himself to its advantages to the hilt. The green hue for "Green Shirt." The bathing of himself in pure red lights. The synchronized switches from neon to fluorescent that kept the beat in "Pump it Up," and pumped up "The Beat."
Was there a glaring disappointment? Only the shortness of the show, which prevented him from playing very much from the pre-historic classic My Aim is True, the premiere science fiction epic of Elvis's childhood. He did do "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" though, and did them well.
Elvis Costello is a troubadour. He roams the world in search of something, stopping off here and there to play the message he feels at that moment. He has no unbreakable planned set that he adheres to. The opposite is more true. His set changes every night, and virtually everything is possible, including digressions into country music, sixties music, bad music, and damn good music.
The troubadour at the Palace, on a rainy Sunday night in Albany. What could be more enticing? And he came through. He teased, and he flirted, he kept the beat, he pumped it up, his aim was true, and he wasn't angry anymore. And that's greatness.