Last week, two of rock's most exciting new artists, Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon, played Boston concerts on consecutive nights. Both shows were hotly anticipated by fans and critics alike; the two singers are extraordinary and versatile craftsmen who, through heavy FM airplay and consistently positive reviews, have broken through to a relatively wide audience.
While Costello and Zevon have each recorded two sparkling albums, the live performances of the two provided several interesting contrasts. Costello is a born performer — an enigmatic fireball of constrained energy whose taut performance can wholly captivate a crowd. Zevon, though, has some troubles in concert. His show is enjoyable because it is very much the antithesis of a rock concert, but the erratic pace, a lack of backup vocalists, and his own nervousness leaves the crowd a bit uneasy.
Costello's live show embellishes his recorded work. He, like Dylan and Springsteen, is a master of nuance, hanging onto and twisting words when they seen appropriate, constantly reinterpreting and matching the songs to the audience's reactions. He kicked off his show with three bristling dynamic rockers before greeting Boston with: "Good evening. how are you?" — and he never let up the pace from that point. His between song patter was brief, the songs themselves segued into each other with only a moment's breathing space.
Costello's sense of timing is uncanny. During the ballad, "Alison," he led the audience up to the climax, teased them by snatching it away, only to build it up with more intensity the next time. For "Watching the Detectives" — an eerie, terse song with a reggae structure — Costello unstrapped his guitar, grasped the microphone stand and leaned into it with the passion of a man possessed. When he sang the line "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake," he ventured out beyond the stage floodlights into the darkness.
After the concert I met Costello at the Rat (a Boston club) and chatted with him briefly. His appearance is now less imposing; his hair has brown out, almost into a ducktail, and the Buddy Holly glasses which looked so unnatural on the cover of My Aim Is True seem not part of an image campaign at all. I asked him about "Radio, Radio." Yes, the inclusion on Saturday Night Live was unplanned and the producer, Lorne Michaels, directed a prolonged obscene gesture at Elvis for its duration. He was mildly surprised when I told him the song has been the fourth most played song on Album Rock radio (the format he slams in the song) during the past two weeks, but he smiled tersely, and said, "Yeah, I figured either everyone would play it 'cause they thought it didn't mean them or else no one would play it." Contented and committed? Perhaps. Angry? No.
Warren Zevon's show was enjoyable if unsettling. Zevon's personality is not one of rock star braggadocio; rather he uses wry self-deprecating humor to his advantage ("Part of my guitar style is playing loud and out of tune... but spiritedly," he laughed), but his performance was uneven.
Without the backup singers that aided him on his records, Zevon's voice seemed almost naked. And he couldn't quite fine the depth his studio versions have. But his main problem was pacing. Most performers have a feel for the song order and when to play fast or slow numbers, but Zevon appeared to select his songs randomly. At times he'd huddle with the band to make the decision and while the potential for spontaneity was great, the lapses between songs blunted their effect.
Still, Zevon's wit carried him through some of the haphazardness. Zevon is an excitable boy - and an intelligent one. He can't help viewing the rock star trip as a grand hoax, and this is commendable. He even introduced his band as Merv Griffin might, mike in hand, pulling the cord along as he moved to each member, telling an anecdote about each one. But the overall performance was sloppy.
Costello improved upon superb studio songs. Zevon seemed a little trapped by the proficiency that went into his records and couldn't respond as well in a live setting. With more work, his uneasiness may fade and the confidence he displays so well on Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy may be incorporated into the show. If that happens, watch out, this boy has a razor sharp edge.