I've always promised myself that if I ever won the lottery, I'd hire Elvis Costello to sing at my wedding. Nothing fancy — just him and his guitar, singing his trademark bitterly touching love songs to the "dearly beloved" with a plethora of Cuisinarts and toaster ovens as a backdrop.
The odds are against me on this one (the megabucks part, anyway) so for now I'll have to settle for seeing Costello in his all-too-infrequent public performances. His current tour, his first of the states in I don't know how many years, brought him to the East Bay for two sold-out shows last weekend.
Fortunately, reports of the demise of 1977's most notorious "angry young man" have been grossly overstated. True, he's thirtysomething and married with a mortgage. Yeah, he's been writing songs with Paul McCartney. I've even heard him described as "wimpy" and "mellow?' Hey! He's not 22 anymore (and neither are you, my dear, or won't be for much longer).
Costello may be older and wiser these days, but Friday's show at UC-Berkeley's Greek Theatre (he also performed Saturday at the Concord Pavilion) proved the '80s haven't dulled his edge. The slashing, sparse sound of his first few albums has been filled out through the years, but give the man credit for mastering the arts of musical arrangement and production.
The show started right on schedule, forcing latecomers to scurry into their seats as Costello launched into "Accidents Will Happen" with his six-member backing band, the Rude 5. Though a little rough at first, everyone was in a groove by the third number (a jazzy-bluesy "Clubland"), which featured an underrated-as-guitar-technician Elvis on screeching, scorching leads.
The Rude 5 (plus one) provided Elvis superb support. These multi-talented musicians switched instruments as the mood of the songs dictated, adding a little horn here, a little accordion there, but always returning to a straight-ahead style featuring a standard guitar/bass/synth/percussion lineup (including former Attractions drummer Pete Thomas).
Costello next played several selections from his most recent album, Spike, which was recently certified as a gold record. "Let Him Dangle," a biting derision of capital punishment, slid into an extended version of "God's Comic" as a vehicle for his acerbic social commentary. He stopped in mid-song to deliver a caustic monologue, castigating TV preachers, fur-wearers, apartheid proponents, and Exxon executives among other targets.
Elvis drew laughs with his remarks about Ronald Reagan's recent brain surgery, then said that "we probably shouldn't make fun of other people's misfortune. But fuck it. After all, that's what they've been doing to us all along." He then finished the song, which features a chorus of "Now I'm dead, now I'm dead" and a horn arrangement reminiscent of a Dixieland funeral.
Costello was billed as performing "solo and with his band," so the band obliged by leaving the stage for a "lemonade break." Elvis' solo tour a few years back cast his songs in an unexpectedly emotional and sincere light, and hopes were high that he would treat the crowd to an extended 1-on-6,000 exhibition of the singer-songwriter genre at its finest.
Alas, he was alone on stage for only a few acoustic numbers (among them a charmingly bittersweet "Radio Sweetheart") before being joined on a duet of "Girls Talk." The rest of the band quickly reappeared, jumping into the Dorian Gray-esque "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," which replaces the portrait in the attic with flashy ruby-hued footwear.
Costello ended the 90-minute set with "Mystery Dance," a frustrated virgin's lament that "I've tried and I've tried and I'm still mystified / I can't do it anymore and I'm not satisfied." A quick break (no milking the crowd for adulation and flicks of their Bics; he seemed as eager to get back on stage as the audience was to see him there), a quick return.
Nick Lowe, Elvis' drinking buddy and sometime producer, just happened to be on hand to lead the ensemble on his composition "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" to end the first encore. The only real disappointment of the evening was Lowe's abrupt disappearance after just this one song, especially because the concert was still almost an hour away from being over.
"Veronica" was a highlight of the second encore. Costello's first U.S. Top 20 single, it is also among McCartney's best collaborations since his work with John Lennon.