The last time Elvis Costello played Portland (a year earlier) his set was interrupted when a beefy firecracker exploded onstage by his feet. The band dropped everything and bolted. Costello stood his ground, finishing "Watching the Detectives" a capella, till the band timidly returned. This year's model, only the second stop on his American tour, was higher priced and better attended, crisper and more obviously staged than its predecessor, almost as short (its full length even with two encores was just over 50 minutes) and nearly as unsatisfying.
Except for a smattering of songs from This Year's Model (most of them in the encore) and a trio of unrecorded tunes, the evening was devoted to Armed Forces. That would have been fine, but the sound — which had been sprightly and clean for the opening act, the Rubinoos, a scrubbed and exuberant bunch of rock archivists from Berkeley — was badly mixed and poorly projected. The result everywhere in the hall was a murky, impenetrable wall of mud.
The botched sound was especially disappointing because of scattered hints that Costello had changed in the last year, that he'd matured and grown and was back with new lessons. A lot of those new twists showed up on Armed Forces and the crowd wanted more glimpses behind the mask.
But there were a few in evidence. Where Costello used to stave off his audience with a nervous, haughty arrogance, now he appears to want them to like him, or at least to recognize his humor. Uncharacteristically talkative, Costello filled the infrequent pauses between songs with oblique patter, spoken almost as dramatic asides. "Things have changed since the last time we were in America" he began while introducing "Radio, Radio," "They've gotten worse."
For their part, the Attractions — a band that keeps getting better in startling leaps — were excellent. In spite of the sound, the band's distinctive features — Steve Naive's enthusiastic organ, less one-dimensional and more idiosyncratic than it's been before, Bruce Thomas' dark bass lines and Pete Thomas' precise, staccato drumming — were more obvious in the unembellished live mix than on Armed Forces' layered thickness.
Probably no show that Costello could do would completely satisfy his audience, no matter how crisp the sound or how long the set. But soon after Costello's American tour began in February he appeared in a brief snippet of the Heroes of Rock and Roll TV special, tearing his way through a bitter and forceful reading of "Pump It Up." It was the same tune Costello chose to encore with in Portland and the televised version had a power, authority and wildness the Paramount show never approached.