At this point in his career, critics are having a difficult time pigeonholing Elvis Costello. He's one of the few who burst forth in the initial punk blast of 1977 who has shown any lasting talent. He has also changed his style dramatically since then without losing any of his impact. His lyrical concerns are now those of an adult — he would have been incapable, six years ago, of writing a song with the complexity and subtle despair of "Shipbuilding." But his musical growth has not been so quantum, and easily digestible, as David Bowie's, and therein lies the critical complaint most often leveled at him.
It was with trepidation that I approached his concert in the Greek Theatre on September 23. In the studio he and his band (the Attractions) are capable of creating moving and muscular music, the strong production working as perfect counterpoint to his witty and complex words. But a live performance... well, I've heard he can be sullen and peevish, playing a mediocre 35-minute set taken from the old Lou Reed "fuck you" school of charm. Antagonism directed at one's audience does not engender a good time.
None of that was evident at his Berkeley performance. Quite the contrary, in fact. The man worked hard to insure that everyone was indeed having a good time. He ran the gamut of his material, which is quite wide, from the powerhouse punk of "Pump It Up" and "What's So Funny ('Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding)," through the mid-period electric bombast of "Big Sister's Clothes," on to the drunken country/western of Almost Blue, coming to rest primarily at the lush Imperial Bedroom ballads and the '60s soul Stax/Volt brash brassiness of Punch the Clock. Rather than pacing the show he took the rollercoaster approach, alternating ballad with rocker, that left many, including himself, breathless. While achieving a nice balance of energy, this tactic lessened the impact of the ballads because the crowd was always on their feet.
Costello has a nice mid-range crooner's voice, one that can be quite effective on an impassioned ballad. He showcased it well on songs like the aforementioned "Shipbuilding," "Man Out of Time," "Almost Blue," and especially "Kid About It." They have beautiful lyrics that hold their own against the best pop tunes written in the past 30 years; Costello is nothing if not a historian, and his dj stint on radio station KQAK the following day proved it — his knowledge of the genre is thorough and exhaustive.
But — and this is a large but — the venues that Costello, as a headlining rock act, is required to play are somewhat inappropriate to the nature of this new, subtler material. Did the fans at the Greek Theatre hear all the words? Did the puns and paradoxes make it through intact? I doubt it. I was leaning in so close to catch every nuance I almost fell over. Elvis himself compounded the problem by providing a few too many distracting theatrical gestures. Better to have let the songs themselves provide the drama, as they more than amply could have.
But the guy puts out. He was able to easily overcome a muddy sound mix (fortunately the microphone mix was clear and loud), two gratuitous and feeble backup singers, and a competent but not exactly stellar rhythm section, push himself to the limit during a 2½-hour set and come back for more. Credit should also be given to keyboard player Steve Nieve, whose excellent playing added the much-needed coloring and delicacy to an otherwise lackluster live sound. He went from ham-fisted acoustic piano to rippling synthesizer glissandos, often in the same song, with a fluidness that captivated me.