Three of the standard-bearers of New Wave rock 'n' roll — Elvis Costello, Mink DeVille and Nick Lowe's Rockpile — brought their roadshow to a sparse but fanatical group of about 1,200 people at Municipal Auditorium this week, proving that rock in the '70s needn't be watered down or embellished with gimmickry.
Each artist has come into prominence in the last year, paralleling the explosion and subsequent deflation of the punk movement. But while the bands on the bill can rival the intensity offered by the Ramones or Dead Boys, each of the band's lead singers has more in common with Bruce Springsteen than Johnny Rotten. And like the Springsteen of four years ago, all are prime candidates for breaking out of cult status into the mainstream.
Elvis Costello neither looks or sings like his namesake. Instead, standing in front of his three-piece band, the Attractions, he projects the aura of a demented high school science teacher taking a pack of juvenile delinquents on a field trip down the low road of life.
From the outset, Elvis seemed to represent the shy, reclusive wimp as hero of the modern world. But midway into his Tuesday night set when Costello noticed the rent-a-cops and ushers herding the crowd out of the aisles and back to their seats, he fumed with a vengeance that would have made Presley proud 20 years ago. He grabbed the microphone and yelled, "It's a ------ prison camp here," and charged into his incisive put-down of fashion for fashion's sake, "This Year's Girl."
Musically, Costello and the Attractions are strong advocates of the power of simplicity with nary a synthesizer or smoke machine in sight. Costello's more than adequate guitar work blended in beautifully with the '60s-derived punk organ of Steve Naive.
If he wasn't angry, as he claimed on one of his two encore numbers, Costello at least maintained that uneasy edge so crucial to good rock with selections like "Radio, Radio," a justified complaint about the rigidity and conservatism of radio programming.
Nick Lowe, Costello's producer and leader of his own band, Rockpile, opened the show (and right on time, no less) with a 30-minute set that included several selections from his latest album, Pure Pop for Now People. He, too, had a valid bone to pick with the music industry which he put into a song, "They Call It Rock," that knocked the various record companies he'd dealt with. But rather than dwell on corporate politics or his vaunted infatuation with pop music, Lowe stuck mostly to solid Chuck Berry-inspired rock 'n' roll (sans Happy Days nostalgia). He was ably assisted by protege Dave Edmunds, who did a rave up version of "Ju Ju Man" from his own Get It album.
Sandwiched between Lowe and Costello was the six-piece DeVille, making its first appearance here since last summer's debut at the Armadillo. Like the other two acts, Mink knows its roots intimately. But rather than borrow from white progenitors, Willy DeVille, the long and lean lead vocalist and centerpiece of the band, was more inclined to expound upon Rhythm 'n' blues, shouting like a long lost Righteous Brother. Combined with the auditorium's notorious acoustics, the band, spearheaded by the stinging guitar of Louis X. Erlanger, welded tambourines and wood block effects into a cohesive sound that Phil Spector would be proud of.
Since its last appearance here, Mink DeVille, like Costello, has sanded away the rough edges and crafted a set geared for larger halls. As calculated as the routine has become (Willy did his patented knee drops on a cushioned pad at the front of the stage), his dedication to the street prevailed. After one scene where he lit a cigarette, tossed his coat over his shoulder, and stood alone in a single spotlight, at least two members of the audience described him as the John Travolta of rock. But watching him slide across the floor on greased heels during his sole encore, I'd rather remember him as James Brown for people who never forgot how to camel walk.