If you think Elvis Costello, the once kingpin of Punk and New Wave angst, has stifled his sharp tongue and rocking sensibilities in favor of just collaborating with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter only, think again. Costello proved beyond a doubt where his musical roots lay at a recent show at the Berkeley Community Theater. He showed the crowd that though his musical styles have expanded beyond the fast-paced, witty lyrics of his early career, his origins of being a great rock 'n' roll songwriter and a captivating performer are still perfectly intact.
With his new band, The Imposters-which features half of the original Attractions, Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve, while replacing bassist Bruce Thomas in favor of Davey Faragher-the forty-seven-year-old Costello powered through an almost two-and-a-half-hour set of music. With more than 20 years of music to his credit, Costello chose some rarities that he hasn't played in a long time or never played in concert before. Songs such as "Beyond Belief," "Man Out Of Time," and "You Little Fool," in which Costello remarked that he had never played on stage, were able to cause some actual gasps of happiness from the crowd.
Other songs he hadn't played in years included "I Hope You're Happy Now," "Clowntime Is Over" and "High Fidelity." He even the did the obligatory classics such as "Pump It Up," "Watching The Detectives" and "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea."
Thankfully he left out "Alison" and "The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes," which probably aggravated the fans who only came to hear him replay his first two albums. They forget that he has a vast selection of songs to choose from, many of which can spin circles around those two songs. Instead Costello brought out nuggets from the past, even reworking some of them-such as in the case of "Waiting Until The End Of The World" or the powerful "I Want You."
But even though those songs were tasty treats, the main highlights were the songs he played off his new album When I Was Cruel. From his opening tune "45," which he last played acoustically at the Oakland Paramount on his last tour through the Bay Area, to the mesmerizing "15 Petals," a love song that Costello says in a recent Rolling Stone interview "is about the way love picks you up and hurls you around room," he was able to bring the audience up to date on what he thinks about love, his current age and rock 'n' roll.
Speaking of rock 'n' roll, on one of his new songs, "Spooky Girlfriend," Costello joked with the crowd that the song was a modern morality tale about a "showbiz weasel and his protege, who looks like a German porn star and likes color-coded credit cards with matching shoes . . . I think she's here tonight." The song has lyrics that say "I want a girl to turn my screw / To wind my watch, to buckle my shoe / And if she won't her mother will do / But when she does as she's told / We'll all turn platinum and gold."
In this song, and in many others off his last few albums, Costello has been able to transform his voice into a working instrument. Where once he shouted and shoved as many lyrics into a song as he could, now he takes his time and lets his voice tell more of the stories he's trying to get across. Costello, dressed in a black suit and with his hair now receding and buzzed, sang most of the other songs off his new album, too, including the title track, "When I Was Cruel No. 2," "Tart," and the haunting "Radio Silence." He left the crowd, which was made up people both young and those who looked like they've followed his career from the start and were even wearing ear plugs up in the balcony, with three encores.
The opening band was the Boston-based quartet American Hi-Fi. The band, which is led by former Aimee Mann drummer Stacy Jones, played just over a half-hour set. They sounded like a cross between the bands Green Day, Oasis and with a little bit of Smashing Pumpkins mixed in. Their song "Another Perfect Day" is currently getting airplay on both radio and television.