Like most of the people in the sold-out Opera House Thursday night, I heard a fantastic concert by Elvis Costello. Unfortunately, also like most of the people there, I didn't see a thing, at least not for most of the show.
I saw Elvis' head often enough to infer that he has, indeed, put on some weight (and looks surprisingly good as a result), but the rest of the band was only visible in short, second-long snatches.
Credit for this debacle can be laid at the feet of the promoters, Stone City Productions, who set up chairs on the Opera House's dance-floor. As fans jammed the front of the stage, people in the chairs stood up, and, not being able to see even then, they stood on the chairs. Thus, nobody around them, or in the first few rows of seats in the back of the hall, could see. Also, the Opera House's notorious ventilation wasn't turned on, making the hall fetid and uncomfortably smokey. More than one fan asked for (and was summarily refused) a refund.
I found the show easier to take if I thought of it as a live broadcast, a treat for the ears and not the eyes. And, it must be stated, Elvis Costello and the Attractions were in top form, sizzling through a set of songs from their new album Trust, old favorites, and a couple of country-and-western classics. Starting out with a low-key voice-and-guitar reading of "Just A Memory," he then slammed into a powerful "Accidents Will Happen" and turned the corner without downshifting, careening into a version of "Slippin' and Slidin"' that any rock 'n' roller would have been proud of.
Nor did he stop there, although he did pause to catch his breath and talk to the audience (!?!) about his new album. In fact, he was almost chatty, telling us that he wrote "Motel Matches" when he gave up drinking, and tearing the roof off when he introduced "Radio, Radio" by saying "We've been listening to KLBJ today. It's not getting better!"
After a version of Patsy Cline's "He's Got You," former Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont took up a second guitar and filled out the Attractions' spare sound until the end of the show. Two encores followed: inspired readings of Hank Williams' "Mind Your Own Business" "Honky Tonkin'," and "Move It On Over" with Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Austin's Joe Ely on harmonies, and a soul encore that started with "From A Whisper To A Scream" and went into a superb "Watching the Detectives" that segued into Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster" and back again. It was such a great show that nobody noticed its brevity.
Squeeze, that pop band so beloved here in Austin and in a few other cities in the States, opened the show, fueling rumors that they are about to sign with Elvis' management and record company, and playing through a set of finely crafted pop numbers. Their new keyboardist, whose name I didn't catch, couldn't have taken the job for the money, since he is the author of the mid-'70s pop hit "How Long," and he obliged us with it in mid-set.
The uncomfortable surroundings of the hall made it difficult to concentrate on their set, which seemed to consist mostly of material from a forthcoming album. I liked what I heard, though: They're masters at what they do, and their absence from the U.S. charts is more puzzling than anything else.