Elvis Costello has at long last spurted to mass popularity, but now suddenly appears to be his own worst enemy. The King of the Quirks arrived last night hot on the heels of yet another controversy.
It was reported in this week's Village Voice and Record World that Costello engaged in a fight recently with singer Bonnie Bramlett while at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio. Bramlett was with Stephen Stills' band, which ran into Costello's entourage and ended up partying together. Bramlett alleged that Costello made a succession of derogatory remarks about Americans ("just a bunch of flea-bitten greasers and niggers"), James Brown ("a jive-ass nigger") and Ray Charles ("an ignorant blind nigger"). Whereupon, Bramlett says, she slapped Costello and he reacted by calling her a slut.
Last night, per policy since the recent incident, Costello was not talking. A spokesperson with him said that Costello does not deny making those statements but that he was drunk and was mainly trying to antagonize Bramlett. The spokesperson conceded that the remarks were immature, but added rather unbelievably that "they have won as much praise as criticism."
Curiously, Costello's latest tantrum comes in the wake of his most mature and sanguine album, Armed Forces, which has been hovering in the Top Ten throughout the country and has finally catapulted him out of obscurity. The album reveals a depth of songwriting and hawk-eyed observation that is far more compelling than the sometimes psychiatric-couch mentality of his first two American releases.
Apart from the discordant haze cast by his racial slurs, last night's show was Costello's best in Boston. It contrasted with the unadulterated weirdness of his initial Paradise appearance and the relentless one-dimensional tumult of last year's Orpheum show with Mink DeVille. This time Costello demonstrated superior pacing, much more professional lighting and yes, he even smiled.
Wearing a pink tie and his infamous checkerboard coat, Costello and his band, the Attractions, played for more than an hour (he has done a few 45-minute shows lately that have outraged ardent fans), focusing on songs from This Year's Model and Armed Forces, intermixed with four new numbers.
Three of the four new songs (especially "Opportunity" and "B Movie") had an intensity akin to "Pump It Up" from his second album. Another, the aptly-named "High Fidelity" (with a chorus of "Can you hear me?"), was in keeping with the depth of Armed Forces. It started with an eerie synthesizer intro from Steve Naive and worked up to a drowning man's wail from Elvis.
Costello played non-stop, like the Ramones and the Clash in this respect but with considerably more melody, until he paused midway through to acknowledge a near-standing ovation. He came back with the chunky guitar syncopations of "The Beat," then the uncharacteristic ballad "Alison" (which he rarely does anymore since Linda Ronstadt recorded it). His improved pacing was evident when he danced for the first time during "Big Boys" (as good a documentary of teenage angst that I've ever heard), then gave way to a dramatic light-show on "Lipstick Vogue." Harsh white spotlights coming from Pete Thomas' drumkit lent an Emerson Lake & Palmer touch, adding a dimension Costello hasn't had before. Too bad about the racial remarks (are we so jaded to just let them pass?) because this was a levitating show.
The Rubinoos scored as opening act with a genuine feel for teen-market pop without the schmaltz of the Bay City Rollers. Their version of the Beatles' "Please Please Me" was ecstatic, as was their handling of the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard." They may be in a time warp, but they're born entertainers.