"Here's a song I wrote in the '80s," Elvis Costello announced at the Backyard Wednesday night, "before many of you were born." But this introduction of "Motel Matches" had about as much truth as a street vendor's claim that his sausages are fat free. The overflow, marijuana-perfumed throng was almost exclusively middle-aged, even if they did hoot and shriek like teens each time E.C. and his amazing Attractions pulled out an old fave like "Party Girl" or "Accidents Will Happen."
Unlike Steve Miller or Costello's former '70s touring mate Tom Petty, who've managed to attract an increasingly younger crowd as their careers wear on, Costello's audience consists of basically the same people whose first image of their main man was as the skinny, pigeon-toed, literate punk rocker who snarled back on the cover of My Aim Is True in 1977. These fans rushed to the stores to buy such early displays of genius as This Year's Model ('78), Armed Forces ('79) and Get Happy ('80) and they have continued to stick by Costello through his relatively barren seven years on Warner Bros.
The reward for these loyalists is a show like Wednesday's, where Costello opened with "Man Out of Time" and "You Belong to Me," two of his least-performed gems, then did clever renditions of such concert mainstays as "Pump It Up" (done as a rollicking roots number, featuring keyboardist Steve Nieve on accordion) and "Oliver's Army." Exemplifying Costello's penchant for re-arrangement, that latter song began as an acoustic number, then flared into its grandiose original sound as the band rejoined at the midpoint. What's more, Costello inserted lyrics from the Pretender's "Kid" into one of "Oliver's" later verses, and he would repeat this sophisticated style of sampling by singing part of the Isleys' "Who's That Lady" in his funkier new version of "(I Don't Want To Go to) Chelsea."
On a good night, Costello can be one of the wittier performers around, and Wednesday was a good night. During the first minute of "Veronica," a woman near the front apparently .raised her shirt and flashed the singer, which made him abruptly stop the song and glance around, as if he couldn't believe what he just saw. "We haven't even gotten to the sexy part of the show," Costello deadpanned, then went back into the song. During "God's Comic," E.C. acted out the title part by asking if Dave Grohl and Alanis Morissette were the same person, then delved into an imitation of Elvis Presley's repertoire (including "Rio" by Duran Duran and U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") if he were still alive.
One annoying aspect of Costello's new showmanship, however, was the way he acted out the lyrics to some of his old hits like "Watching the Detectives" and "Chelsea." As a young punk, Costello was brave enough to list Frank Sinatra and the Grateful Dead as heroes, but as he primped and pandered during the unworthy encore number "Rocking Horse Road," his influences seemed to date back to Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson.
Another minor quibble is a set list that highlighted the two most recent LPs — the new and inconsequential All This Useless Beauty and '94's Brutal Youth, yet paid only lip service to first 10 years of his career. The band didn't do any songs from Trust, Blood & Chocolate or Punch the Clock, while such modern classic LPs as Get Happy! and King of America were represented by only one song each. Acts tour to push the new record, but the placement of the title track of "All This Useless Beauty" in the midst of the first encore segment, reeked of a musical billboard.
I've seen better shows by Elvis and the newly subdued Attractions, and I've seen worse ones. But like most of the other 2,500 on hand (who seemed to gab inordinately for fanatics), I've seen a whole lot of Elvis Costello shows and I'll keep coming back. Even with the vast frontier between highlights and low points, it's always a pleasure to be trapped in a venue with the man and his music.