Elvis Costello stormed into the Orpheum March 29 in the wake of his first genuine hit album Armed Forces and delivered 75 minutes of some of the most ferociously important rock and roll heard in Boston this year.
Costello and his band, the Attractions, bounded on stage to a standing ovation and proceeded to rip through 17 songs, mostly from Armed Forces and This Year's Model with feverish intensity. Costello's magnetic, menacing stage presence and the vastly improved playing of the Attractions made the studio tracks, explosive as they are seem tame.
A mindblowing lighting system bathed the band in murky green and Costello in harsh red or green spotlights, creating a hellish atmosphere which dramatically underscored the desperate anarchy, both emotional and political, of Costello's songs.
The calm cynicism of "Green Shirt" was transformed into a venomous revelation with Costello spitting out the lyrics and Pete Thomas firing off machine gun-like bursts on the drums. "I Don't Want to go to Chelsea" and "Goon Squad" proved that Elvis can be an exciting guitar player when he wants to.
"Lipstick Vogue" was the high point, a relentless assault propelled by Steve Naive's eerie organ and synthesizer and Thomas' drumming. A bright white spotlight attached to the drum kit and aimed directly at the audience cut through the pitch black darkness, backlighting Costello in a cross between Cabaret-style decadence and the Twilight Zone as he spewed out lyrics like "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor / You've got to cut it out." It seemed like a descent into the depths of the psyche.
But Costello also showed a surprising amount of warmth. He actually smiled (twice), danced (albeit awkwardly), and prefaced "Accidents Will Happen" with the comment, "This is my new single in America. Probably the only place you'll hear it played is in Boston." And his emotion-choked vocals on the classic "Alison" bared his vulnerability.
After three encores, "Mystery Dance," "You Belong to Me," and "Pump it Up," he was gone.
Elvis Costello has been regarded as an enigma. But what Armed Forces, his current tour, and the Boston show have made clearer than ever is his utter contempt for convention, the "system" if you will. And this seems to he the driving force behind the man.
Let's hope the bad press Costello has garnered for his recent exploits (drunken comments, run-ins with radio stations) doesn't obscure the fact that, in "Radio, Radio," he's written one of the boldest, most politically explosive statements in rock and roll history — "The radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anesthetize the way you feel."
And if you think he's only talking about the radio, you have a long way to go toward understanding the "enigmatic" Elvis Costello.