Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 16, 1982
When Elvis Costello plays the Grand Ole Opry,
NASHVILLE — Outside the legendary Grand Ole Opry, the marquee read "Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 8 p.m." It was a strange sight, considering the Opry, a staunch purveyor of pure country, has barred many American rock bands let alone British New Wavers from its stage.
But Elvis Costello, perhaps the most prolific songwriter to emerge from the British rock scene in the late '70s and an artist whose songs deal with themes similar to those of country, was being given special consideration. During the past few years, he has written for and recorded with country music legend George Jones, performed such songs as Patsy Cline's "She's Got You" and recently released Almost Blue, an album of country classics recorded in Music City with veteran country music producer Billy Sherrill.
The record has received only marginal air play on some country stations, and is for the most part Elvis Costello's version of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait, a collection of songs the 26-year-old probably likes to sing in the shower. Since 1977, Costello has been New Wave's biggest country music booster and perhaps its most ardent fan.
His recent performance at the Grand Ole Opry, part of a five-city transcontinental tour to support Almost Blue, was, despite the obvious anomaly, quite apropos.
Behind the familiar horn-rimmed glasses and dressed in a gray suit that looked like it belonged on a bigger brother, Costello took to the Opry stage with what appeared to be a slight smile creasing his pudgy, double-chinned face. A rare moment indeed.
The often-stoical Costello, who sings with the urgency of a disgruntled rabble-rouser, usually evinces little sign of contentment at his concerts. You can see why when he sings lines like "I don't wanna be your lover / I just want to be your victim," from "The Beat," and "Sometimes I think that love is / Just like a tumor / You've got to cut it out," from "Lipstick Vogue." He seems to stake his existence on belligerence, lashing out at life's frustrations rather than lamenting them.
For a moment, as he surveyed the Opry, there was that smile, however. Perhaps he was remembering growing up in England with aspirations of performing in the same theater as his hero George Jones. But even after the first chords to his opening number, "Accidents Will Happen," Costello still seemed to be enjoying himself, leaving his often embittered stage posture in its cue like a warped and useless guitar.
"We've been waiting for an excuse to play this one," he said smugly, "and in a moment, I think you'll understand why." The song was "Radio, Radio" and he launched into it like a drunk driver without any brakes, publicly chastising radio programmers, record executives and musicians with little regard for consequence.
"You either shut up or get cut up / They don't want to hear about it / It's only inches on the reel to reel / And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools / Trying to anesthetize the way that you feel." It was a prelude to his material from Almost Blue, an album that has been ignored by radio programmers.
Introducing the Doobie Brothers' John McFee on pedal steel guitar, a musician who worked on Almost Blue as well as on Costello's first LP with the band Clover, The El looked like a chipper Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet as he ran through his country material. He did fine with Charlie Rich's "Sittin' and Thinkin'," as well as with Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." But Costello's voice is better suited to ferocious insurgence than to the plaintive whine of a country crooner, as became apparent on George Jones' "Brown to Blue." His coarse vocal timbre was a poor substitute for the delicate resonance needed to render the sentimental lament.
"This one is from our new album, which should be out in the new year," he said during the second set, adding, "I didn't say which new year."
Costello's impish grin was still evident as he whipped through "'Pidgin English," a spirited, vacillating melody that, like many of his compositions, seemed to lift riffs from rock's past.
"Kid About It" and "Almost Blue," both new songs, sounded like Tin Pan Alley compositions, the latter resembling. "My Funny Valentine," and the former, a Cole Porter songbook selection. Costello stood through them both in a classic crooning pose, swaying with one hand on the microphone, the other outstretched.
The Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas gracefully slid through a melange of ballads, Juke joint rhythms and Buddy Holly-style rock 'n' roll. Impeccable in their execution, the band members provided Costello with every effect a Barry Manilow-style arpeggio for the crooners, splintered drum rolls for the rockers and orchestral bass maneuvers for pop selections like "Human Hands," a new composition.
For an encore, "I Can't Stand Up (for Falling Down)" was beautifully refurbished into a slow, soulful blues number. And that was followed by an alarmingly spirited "You Belong to Me," replete with its Rolling Stones "Last Time" feel. Then, much to the surprise of the three-quarters-full Opry House, Costello and the Attractions came back once more, performing a tender version of "Alison," one of his best known compositions (it was done by Linda Ronstadt) and a jangly "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
The show might be considered a metaphor for Costello's artistry. The jittery leaps of melody, flickering images, blues and country and soul and rock all rendered so brutally succinct that it gave one little time to figure out what was happening. That's probably how Elvis Costello wanted it — nothing readily comprehensible, no mood too predictable, but every song thoroughly enjoyable.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 16, 1982