Over the past dozen years, no rock 'n' roll songwriter, not even Lou Reed or Bruce Springsteen, has accumulated such a thick, bulging book of great songs as Elvis Costello. So it was appropriate that Costello kicked off his show at the Merriweather Post Pavilion last night with "Oh, I just don't know where to begin."
That's the first line from one of his best songs, "Accidents Will Happen," a fierce rebuttal to the idea that pregnancies, careers or social orders are hit-and-run accidents. "I don't want to hear it." he bellowed on the chorus "'cause I know what. I've done."
Indeed he does, for he has purposefully and brilliantly redefined his career this year. Assembling a new cast of musicians around him, he has released 1989's best album thus far. Spike, and has followed it up with 1989's best tour thus far. Summoning up all his impatient anger of old but refining it through his ever-maturing craft, Costello last, night put on one of the most stunning rock 'n' roll shows this writer has ever witnessed.
He strode briskly on stage in a funereal black suit and eyeglasses even blacker and clunkier than Buddy Holly's. From the first chord of "Accidents Will Happen," he and his band played with a potent authority that never slipped from their grasp.
This is Costello's first full-fledged tour with a band other than the Attractions. Drummer Pete Thomas is the only holdover from the old group, and he was joined by guitarist/ horn player Marc Ribot and percussionist/ accordionist Michael Blair, both from Tom Waits' band. Jerry Scheff, from Elvis Presley's legendary T.C.B. Band, was on bass, string bass and tuba; like Thomas, Ribot and Blair, he had also played on Spike.
Filling out the lineup were singer/guitarist/trombonist Steven Soles, who had been part of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel, a famous L.A. session player who made his mark on Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and hundreds of other hits. This sextet (inexplicably called the Rude Five) played with all the assaultive energy of the Attractions but with far more versatility and finesse.
Costello himself has developed into an exceptional singer, as he proved over and over last night. On "Brilliant Mistake," he sang the verses as intimate confessionals and then built the choruses into soaring harmonies with Soles. On "Poisoned Rose," his country confessional about a faltering marriage, he belted out the heartache verses with an undeniable clarity and forcefulness. He turned the lyrics of desire in "I Want You" into menacing threats with the tone of his voice, and he made his farewell to an old girlfriend, "Alison," sound more tender and accepting than it ever had before.
He rearranged many of his songs radically. "Let Him Dangle," the skillful polemic against capital punishment from his new album, was given a jarring treatment, full of harmony-twisting guitar, pounding percussion and sudden stops. The reggae beat of "Watching the Detectives," a song about TV-induced alienation from his first album, was buried under successive layers of guitar noise. He gave "Uncomplicated" an industrial jungle beat and then segued into Willie Dixon's classic blues number, "Hidden Charms."
"God's Comic," a demented cabaret song from Spike, was lengthened considerably. In the song, God considers his handiwork with a sense of disappointment. After hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem, the Supreme Being wonders "if I should have given the world to the monkeys." At that point last night, Costello threw in a bit of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" for good measure.