Has Elvis Costello finally tried acid? Or has he just realized that since a large part of his audience comes only to hear "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives," he can do whatever he wants for the remaining two hours and 15 minutes? Just two possible explanations for his show with the Attractions at Harborlights a week ago Wednesday, which — in terms of set list, arrangements, and overall tone -- has to rank as one of the most bizarre local shows by a major artist this year.
Touring behind a four-month-old album that's already flopped (All This Useless Beauty, on Warner Bros.), Costello shook up the usual "new album plus greatest hits" format of his shows. True, the most obvious hits (the above plus "Accidents Will Happen" and an angrier-than-usual "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding") turned up sooner or later, as did half the recent album. For the first time in years, he also dug up obscure tracks from some of his best, if less obvious, albums: "Riot Act" and "Opportunity" (both from Get Happy!!); "Human Hands" and "Kid About It" (both from Imperial Bedroom); "Clown Strike" and "Rocking Horse Road" (both from the underrated Brutal Youth).
But this wasn't an occasion for Costello to revisit his catalogue so much as it was an opportunity to deconstruct it. Songs were drastically rearranged (a techno-tango "(I Don't Want To Go to) Chelsea" was almost unrecognizable), played out of the usual sequence ("Pump It Up," the inevitable last encore and band intro, was instead done midway through the show), or, in the case of an acoustic, minor-key "Veronica," screwed up badly. Most surprising of all, he and the Attractions have suddenly become a jam band, taking off on long, not necessarily focused instrumentals. During a 10-minute (!) "Detectives," Steve Naïve contributed synthesizer blurps and squiggles while Costello pounded out wildly dissonant whammy-bar chords and bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas maintained a bare semblance of the original reggae rhythm. The fun part was watching as fans used to standing up and dancing during the song struggled to stay afloat.
At times the reinterpretations were just odd enough to work. Costello didn't sing "Green Shirt" so much as lecture it, wagging a stern finger like the English professor he's come to resemble. But the five-song acoustic stretch pointed out the shortcoming of his acoustic shows. He'll explore a song simply by playing it too slow and injecting lots of pauses. His habit of quoting from famous songs is also getting old, especially when bits of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile") turned up in two different numbers.
There were times that the band got to places they'd never been before. The more gorgeous pop numbers from the new album — "Little Atoms" and the title track — had breathing space, benefitting from the band's newfound ability to slow down. "Complicated Shadows" twisted and turned for a long while before resolving with a noise jam that was the night's dramatic peak, and one of the few times everybody truly rocked out.
Despite the show's up-and-down quality, it was still more creative than Elvis's last Great Woods stint with the Attractions, in 1994, when they took the Sex Pistols approach of playing mostly late-'70s material and trying to be the same young punks of old. Last week was their stab at a new direction — or at least their audition for next summer's HORDE tour.