SARATOGA, N.Y. — The clouds over Saratoga certainly looked ominous this past Sunday night. They were enough to scare away a good number of prospective spectators that were not ready to brave the rain to catch the return of Elvis Costello to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
It was Costello's first time back to SPAC in five years and he wasn't about to let the rain or anything else ruin his opportunity to blast the eardrums of audience members with his tasty melodies.
SPAC caught Costello in the second month of his five-month world tour in support of his album Brutal Youth. This tour and the new album also reunited Costello with the Attractions, one of the strongest backing bands any singer-songwriter could hope for. Costello and the Attractions are together again after a hiatus that saw him working with artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and the Brodsky Quartet.
Costello and the Attractions took the stage shortly after 9:30, after a rather mediocre performance by their opening act, Canadian folk-rockers The Crash Test Dummies. The "Dummies" ran through an hour of songs mostly from their latest album, God Shuffled His Feet. They provided little variation of their popular tunes like "Afternoons and Coffeespoons," "Mmm Mmm Mmm," and "Superman's Song" in their premiere performance at SPAC. The commentary of lead singer/guitarist Brad Roberts was amusing, however, as he mentioned at one point, "I always like to pick up the electric guitar at this juncture in the program so as to put to rest any question of my masculinity."
Costello and the Attractions took an entirely different approach to their live performance than the Crash Test Dummies. They took the music found on their albums and twisted it to serve their purpose for the night — to refashion the standard forms of rock and roll with energy and intelligence.
The acoustics of SPAC seemed to serve the Attractions well as the dynamic piano arrangements of Steve Nieve and the mumbling bass of Bruce Thomas soared into the audience's ears. Pete Thomas did a smash-up job of providing the varied percussion arrangements that Costello's tunes demand.
And then there was Elvis. He demonstrated a fierceness reminiscent of his early albums and performances. His lyrics have always had a biting edge to them, but the reality of performing live brought out the energy and proficiency of his guitar-playing.
The band did not hesitate to talk to the audience or even give them a chance to catch their breath. They ripped through the first couple of songs without a break. Then Costello said a quick "Hello," smiled, and launched into "Pony Street." Other highlights from the first part of their set included "You Tripped at Every Step," "Still Too Soon to Know," "New Lace Sleeves," and "My Science Fiction Twin," which featured an amazing piano solo by Nieve. Nieve concluded his solo with a Coltraine-rooted version of "My Favorite Things."
For the first encore, the band returned to do some of their more popular tunes like "Veronica" and "Watching the Detectives." For the second, Costello led the band through a rave-up of their new single "Thirteen Steps Lead Down" into "Oliver's Army."
For their final encore, the band performed the crowd's favorite tune of the night, "Alison." They then covered "Tracks of My Tears," a song popularized by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. It seemed an appropriate choice for Costello, considering that most of Costello's own work focuses on the sense of loss and guilt. The band concluded the night with "Pump It Up," a song that got everyone in the crowd bouncing to the beat.
GQ magazine once termed the music of Elvis Costello, "among the most inflamed rock and roll ever made." Costello showed the concert-goers that fire on Sunday night. He forced the audience to listen and hear his feelings. For someone expecting a rehashing of radio classics, the show was probably a disappointment. For an open and unsuspecting music fan, the show was a slice of rock and roll heaven.