He isn't your typical rock star.
He's average height (maybe shorter), outlines his boyish face with plastic rimmed glasses, styles his hair in neo-Eddy Haskell and attires himself in a sports coat. He has all the sultry sexuality and lethal looks of Woody Allen.
Yet Elvis Costello is perhaps the most critically-acclaimed of what's being called the "new wave."
His is the second of the new wave performances to hit Texas from England in just three weeks. The first was the much-hyped (and recently disbanded) Sex Pistols who played San Antonio two weeks ago.
The first sell-out crowd this year at the Armadillo World Headquarters demonstrated their approval by demanding two encores from the 23-year-old Costello.
It was, as he said, "a wonderful way to begin a tour." (The Sex Pistols were showered with garbage thrown from the audience in San Antonio.) Wednesday night's show in Austin was the first stop along a 42-day tour that will play 36 dates.
Guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Costello was backed by the able English band, The Attractions, on bass, drums and organ. He is backed on his only album, My Aim Is True, by a San Francisco band called Clover.
For about an hour, Costello brandished his unique blend of rock 'n' roll. He borrows heavily from a variety of influences (including Van Morrison, early Beatles, The Who, Elvis Presley and Mitch Ryder) to create a sound that, in some respects, resembles Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parker and Southside Johnny. But if it were literature they'd call it genre, because the sound is similar but the style is distinctly Elvis Costello.
Brash and usually short, his songs are, as one critic described the style of an emerging novelist, "superficially superficial."
They adhere faithfully to the concept that less is more. Which makes his music deceptive. It is simple, but clever. Chord patterns are basic, but phrasing is hook-oriented, subtle and catchy. Above it all are the lyrics, which are alternately ironic, forthright, sly and mysterious.
He is the Beach Boys back a generation in musical approach, up a generation in insight. Elvis Presley dressed in '70s sensibility. (Don't suggest a Presley relationship to Costello's manager, Jake Riviera, though. Riviera bristles at the notion — even if the album jacket is covered with "ELVIS IS KING" in small print.)
"I told him ( Costello) we should change his name to Elton," Riviera scoffed. "And ask him (Elton John) if he needed a quick six million. After all, he's living."
Elvis Costello's primal sophistication is displaying the rare capability to close the wide gaps between the masses, the regular elitists and the avant-garde. Reviews have generally been favorable. Crawdaddy magazine heralded Costello as the best new artist for 1977. And record sales have been steady; My Aim Is True is 68 on the Billboard record chart after entering around 125 a few months ago.
But despite the plaudits, there remains an inexplicable hesitation to believe in him. He's professional but almost too practiced — seemingly the product of countless hours grooming his act in front of the mirror in preparation for that spotlit moment.
Elvis Costello is an Everyman. He evokes enough commitment, charm and parody for nearly any taste. It's the perception of parody that is most disturbing. David Bowie discarded his, Mick Jagger cultivated his. Only time will tell the shape Elvis' takes.
Persona aside, there is no denying Costello's gifted ear. His most affecting tunes have a compelling pop basis to them. That simplicity is belied, however, by strong lyrical and rhythmic cross-currents.
Played live, "Alison" was one example. It is a song about a reunion Elvis has with an old girlfriend who is now married. It is a bittersweet recollection of dreams unfulfilled and promises betrayed. Set to tender music, the sting of Costello's aim is anesthetized. The incongruence between lyric and music heightens the song's sensitivity.
Costello's set was about half new material and half off the album.
Without talking much, Costello stayed out of the way of his music. One song would often slide into the next, smoothly and with intention. It was a strong performance by a promising artist. As his tour progresses, so should his reputation.
Costello's next album is due March 20. The songs have been recorded; it's now a matter of selection, said Riviera.