The first thing you do upon seeing Elvis Costello in person is try very hard not to laugh. An ex-computer programmer who used to make demo tapes in his garage in England, Costello looks like the class klutz. In short hair, suitcoat, horned-rim glasses and peering expression, he resembles those incredible old pictures of Buddy Holly found in dog-eared fanzines.
It's as if Clarence "Lumpy" Rutherford from the Leave It to Beaver show suddenly emerged on stage at the end of the school dance. You snicker in spite of yourself, then shudder at what might happen up there.
One thing that doesn't happen is Elvis Presley material. Costello is mainly influenced by 60's rock, not 50's. He does splatter the phrase "Elvis is King" all around his debut album cover, but it's a put-on for it's juxtaposed with a deliberately silly pose of himself that is anything but king-like. Says a spokesman for his record company: "He's just like you and me, an average guy."
Not quite. Costello revels in bizarreness; but that hypnotizes you all the more to his stage act. He doesn't jump around or gab between songs. He sings directly into the mike, is so intent that his face turns beet-red from the strain and he stops only to sip orange juice before blasting away again.
His melodies are dance-band oriented, owing to the Young Rascals and Wilson Pickett, and to more obscure '60s groups like Question Mark and the Mysterians (remember "96 Tears"?), Sean Bonniwell and the Music Machine, and Arthur Lee and Love.
What Costello has to say is not that new (he and Graham Parker are mining some of the same territory, but Parker is using horns and a more R&B slant versus Costello's minimal three-piece backup) but what is impressive is the clever ways he crafts the influences together. A hardworking, scientific analysis stands out more than, say, raw creativity.
His band, the Attractions, was thorough fun, especially keyboardist Steve Nasson, whose economic cross-rhythms were an ideal foil for Costello's lean guitar style (no solos).
Indeed, with novelty looks and a strong baritone voice that entirely belies those looks, Costello has star potential of the likes we may have never seen before. After a set loaded with hit-singles hooks like "Red Shoes," "Less Than Zero" and 9 of 14 new songs not on the album ("Lipstick Vogue" and "Big Tears" stood out), Costello left to cheers of "Elvis, Elvis." He never delivered an encore, yet, curiously, on Saturday night he did three before he promised he wouldn't play the Paradise ever again (no room to dance). The class klutz has come of age.
Travis and Shook (they are dropping the Club Wow from their name because, as Steve Shook said "We got tired of explaining what it was when we didn't know ourselves") were as off-beat and as endearing as ever. They are based around Boston, but have been concentrating this year on tours with George Carlin. Their humor remains outrageous, as does their parody of classic pop songs. Since when have you heard "The Impossible Dream" turned into "The Unbiteable Bean?"