The lyrics may be as pointed and cynical as ever and the voice singing them still as urgent, but the lean and hungry angry-young-man look and the churlish stage behavior that once characterized Elvis Costello are no more.
The misfit computer-operator-turned-singer who railed against just about everybody and everything four years ago when he rose from the ranks of Britain's New Wave rock scene is now approaching the status of (dare we say it?) Rock Star.
Success has come to Elvis Costello: Linda Ronstadt and Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits sing his songs (even if they don't necessarily understand them). His record company puts out a collection of B-sides and odd singles just to give his audience something to buy between regular albums. He sells out theaters ranging from the Rainbow in London to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
And it shows. The well-fed, respectable-looking figure dancing about onstage at the Fox Saturday night hardly resembled the Costello who last played here two years ago at the Agora Ballroom.
In those days, the bespectacled Costello (born Declan Patrick MacManus 26 years ago) looked like a rather emaciated cross between Woody Allen and Buddy Holly. He rushed through shows — sometimes without a smile — hardly ever spoke to his audience and often neglected to answer encore calls.
The Costello onstage Saturday night looked 20 pounds heavier and could have been mistaken for a businessman, with his gray suit and vest, red tie and neatly cropped hair. He introduced songs and musicians, thanked the audience several times during the show and actually seemed to be enjoying what he was doing.
This feeling added a dimension to his music not present on record and made the performance much more enjoyable than the rushed affair of two years ago.
With his guitar around his neck, Costello opened the show with a new ballad, accompanied only by Steve Nieve on piano. Then bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas, the other two members of his backup group, The Attractions, joined in on a hard-hitting rendition of "Accidents Will Happen" from his Armed Forces album of 1979.
Costello alternated between furious rockers and emotion-packed slower numbers for much of the show, singing material from all four of his past albums, such as "Opportunity" (one of the best tunes from last year's Get Happy!!), "Clowntime Is Over," "Green Shirt," "Oliver's Army," "Radio, Radio," "Temptation" and "Watching The Detectives."
On the ballad "Alison," probably his best-known song, thanks to Ronstadt, Costello's naturally hoarse vocal packed a forceful wallop. Unfortunately, the lyrics were just about unintelligible on that tune, as in many songs throughout the show.
Also thrown into the rapid-fire mix were chestnuts such as "Slippin' and Slidin'" and new songs from an lp due out in a couple of weeks, including "Luxembourg" (a full-stride rocker) and "Clubland" (featuring some tricky lighting and an echo effect on the vocal).
Costello's guitar work came to the front of the sound mix only occasionally, but The Attractions (supplemented during the last portion of the show by a member of The Rumour, Graham Parker's band) churned out a tight, danceable backing that relied on licks taken from '50s rock 'n' roll, mid-'60s British Invasion music and Motown and Stax soul music. Nieve's work on organ was particularly outstanding.
The enthusiastic young audience — a cross section ranging from those in fill punk regalia to couples who'd look at home at a Falcons game — spent the early and later portions of the performance on its feet.
By the time "Pump It Up," the last of three encores, ended the 75-minute show, the majority of the crowd was bouncing up and down to the music and shouting along with the chorus.
Chalk up another success for Elvis Costello, Rock Star.