When Elvis Costello last passed through these parts nine months ago, headlining a three-act package show at Municipal Auditorium, you couldn't have convinced me he was the guy who would catapult rock 'n' roll into the '80s. From a 13th-row vantage point, the only distinct quality he projected at the time was aloofness, which does not a complete rock star make.
Those impressions faded away in a damp, smoky fog this weekend, though, when Costello returned to the low-ceilinged trenches of the Austin Opera House, generating 1½ hours' worth of pure, uncut excitement for two sold-out crowds.
Costello caught the public ear a couple years ago with his catchy name and accompanying image of the wimp as hero. Since then, especially in the last year, the focus has shifted from image to raw talent, centering on Costello's cynical, perceptive writing and his band, the Attractions, one of the tightest rock combos of the moment, whose setup of guitar, bass, organ, and drums proves simplicity can still be powerful.
More importantly, the group pulled off Friday's show without resorting to pyrotechnics or staging, relying on the sound instead.
Costello introduced at least two new tunes Friday and dredged up standbys like "You Belong to Me" and "Pump It Up." But the essence of the performance was material culled from his latest album Armed Forces.
Odds are that in a year or two Costello will be too big a personality to play places like the Opera House. He is destined for the kind of halls that Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger presently work because he is at the very least the creative equal of both of them. To survive in such sterile surroundings, he'll probably have to work up a choreographed show much like Springsteen's.
Which is why Costello and the Attractions were such a treat this weekend. Performing is still a fresh enough experience for star and band to cause the kind of spontaneous combustion that makes believers out of observers.