PASSAIC — The Capitol Theater atmosphere was wrought with anxiety Friday night as a packed house awaited the return engagement of the New Wave's cynic, Elvis Costello, and his band, The Attractions.
Many thoughts, to be sure, were focused several hundred miles away on the site of a possible nuclear catastrophe. That apprehension was heightened by the tight security arrangements that forced ticket holders onto long lines and subjected them to searches for cameras and weapons.
Outrageous Elvis, whose angry lyrics have instilled more kick into rock 'n' roll spirit since Bob Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street," was to make his first appearance since he is said to have made statements that could bring him a loss of popularity akin to that suffered by John Lennon from "Beatles Are More Popular Than Christ."
In the course of a Columbus, Ohio, bar brawl with the Stephen Stills band and singer Bonnie Bramlett two weeks ago, Costello reportedly uttered a long series of anti-American and racist remarks that included attacks on Ray Charles and James Brown.
The comments were reported in last week's Village Voice, and on Friday, just hours before the show, Costello held a press conference at Columbia Records's Manhattan offices to answer the charges.
The remarks were taken out of context, he said, apologizing to the black artists. "In the course of the argument it became necessary to outrage those people with the most obnoxious and offensive remarks I could muster to bring the argument to a swift conclusion and rid myself of their presence," he said.
But since the publication of the story, Costello said, there have been death threats. He said he was worried about his upcoming dates, including four in Manhattan, and he made a vague reference to cancelling the rest of his tour.
Dressed in a white formal jacket, black pants, white tie, and black shirt, Costello opened his show by singing "I Stand Accused," then moved quickly into "Goon Squad" and several other cuts from his new Armed Forces LP.
The sound was loud, crisp, and brimming with energy. Costello's mouth often seemed glued to the microphone as The Attractions played tight backup.
Playing without the spastic motions that characterize his Saturday Night Live appearances, he communicated a keen sense of what he refers to as "emotional fascism" in which he is a slave to his anger.
By the time Costello got halfway through his sixteen-song, hour-long set, his songs had gained momentum. They came quickly one after another: "Hand in Hand," "Alison," "The Beat," all with enormous energy.
Costello gestured and grimaced through the lyrics, almost acting them out for "Big Boys," his off-handed view of the big times.
Costello used the stage lighting well. On "Lipstick Vogue," he created an almost demonic effect by casting a blue pall across the rear of the stage as a red footlight reflected off his face. With each chorus, he slowly disappeared into the darkness and returned. During "Watching the Detectives," the footlights cast an eerie television screen quality against the darkness.
The set ended with Costello's most forceful song, "Radio, Radio," which describes how "radio's in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anesthetize the way that you feel."
The encore, "Pump It Up" and "You Belong to Me," was superb and all too short.