I have heard the future and it is Elvis Costello.
The power-pop singer-guitarist and his three-man backup, the Attractions, played to an overflow crowd at Dooley's last night, and the result was a series of endlessly repetitious songs delivered with unremitting electric energy.
Costello performed to about 600 patrons for one show only, and the reason was rumored to have been the star's displeasure last May when a show he headlined at the Tucson Community Center drew only 800.
The Britisher represents the newest wave of English rock, and may be the final distillation of the series of Punk-New Wave guerrilla actions that have been upsetting the popular music of that nation for the last three years.
The evening opened with a 45-minute warm-up set by the Rubinoos, a four-man band from the San Francisco Bay area who record on the Berserkley label.
Their youthful enthusiasm won the audience over, and that wasn't easy, considering that Costello fans are mildly manic about their man.
The core of the Rubinoos's sound is a very tight and keenly balanced four-part vocal harmony. They displayed this in original songs and in material borrowed from rock's earlier days. This foursome has been playing together for 10 years and the oldest member is 20, which means the Rubinoos have been playing music together half their lives. It shows in a very controlled act.
Costello came on at 10 p.m., sporting a narrow khaki tie and the Buddy Holly glasses that have become his trademark. Early on, he did some cuts from his latest album, Armed Forces (originally titled "Emotional Fascism," according to one newspaper report). But the crowd took most enthusiastically to more familiar material, like "Alison," the ballad Linda Ronstadt recently included in her Living in the U.S.A. album, and "The Detectives." Both are from Costello's first album.
In an age of repetitious popular music, Costello manages somehow to be even more redundant than his predecessors. The beat is unrelenting, the harmonies all the same, and the melodies sing-songish. That, however, is what some people need and that is what Costello delivers.
His arrangements, too, are bare and forced, with a lot of sound in the middle and not a lot on top.
The fans loved him last night, though he gave them only a 45-minute set for their $8.50 tickets. He knows how to arrange the order of his songs to play on the group emotions of the audience and build them to a pitch of excitement.
It worked so well last night that the crowd stayed around for more five minutes after the set ended, insisting on encores. Costello came back with two, including last year's controversial "Radio, Radio."
Costello seems to sum up the '70s and point to the '80s. His bleak, manic sound may very well typify the next decade.