Elvis Costello played at Brandeis University for the school's annual Bronstein Weekend festival Thursday night.
Elvis Costello. At Brandeis. For Bronstein.
There must have been some wonderful mistake. After four years of has-been or never-was performers (Howard Jones, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, the Hooters... the list goes on like a jukebox from Hell) we had come to expect mediocrity. Rumors of hot bands like the Replacements became the ugly reality of late-night comedians like Dennis Miller.
Sure, the seniors have been treated to a few good shows in our four years here — Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and the Ramones immediately spring to mind — but these were not real school-wide events. Rather, a committed, heroic few, with influence at either Student Events or WBRS, booked the shows. An even more sparse and brave Brandeis contingent melded with the off-campus masses at the concerts. These Levin Ballroom events did not even sell out.
Let's face facts. It sounds funny casually asking a friend, "So, ya goin' to the Circle Jerks tonight?" But Elvis. The name rolls off the tongue. And despite Riff Randle and the Rock 'n' Roll High School's protests, Elvis is bigger, and probably more talented, than the Ramones. In short, Thursday's sold-out concert (with tickets scalping for a minimum of $100 a pair) had the potential to blow the roof off of Shapiro Gym. What better excuse to buy a new athletic facility?
So, did Elvis Costello live up to his promise? The answer: a definite "yes and no." Few people, including this critic, left the 90 minute concert disappointed.
Elvis played a solo, acoustic guitar show. Without a full backing band, the weight of the show was on his shoulders. He alone had to live up to the moniker of "The Beloved Entertainer," which he places prominently on the cover of his latest LP, Spike.
Forget about the music for a moment. As an entertainer, Costello was successful. Some performers try to identify with the audience. These unpretentious artists believe that they are no different or more talented than the people watching them, only they happen to be on stage. Many punk-influenced bands, and even some rockers like Springsteen when he was playing smaller arenas, were successful at pulling this off, and some still are.
Costello took the opposite approach. Standing on stage with his grizzled beard and pot belly, he somehow looked old. Elvis was not one of us, and he knew it. Thus, he went all out to show his skill as a master wordsmith, story-teller, and social observer. He wanted to control the crowd, not join it. The performance worked.
Elvis spiced the first set with amusing introductions, stories, and observations which complemented the songs. Although many of these relatively long commentaries were only tangentially related to the music which followed, Elvis's wit and tongue-in-cheek delivery made them worth hearing.
Costello introduced "Mystery Dance," a fifties style rocker, with a story about an HBO show, Satisfaction. He described the cable television program as "the Brady Bunch meet the Bangles on acid," then complained because the people on the show could not play his song correctly. "There must be something wrong with the youth of America if they can't do this," he said with a chuckle, as he strummed the first chords.
Costello introduced "God's Comic," a song about a washed-up comedian, with an amusing rap about liberal politics. "Do you remember the word 'liberal'?" he asked. "This [song] is about the times before liberal was a swear word." After the line, "Wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys," Elvis launched into snippets from "I'm a Believer" and "Last Train to Clarksville," two songs from the Sixties' popular media icons, the Monkees. Get it: Monkeys and Monkees? Somehow, little ploys like this came off as funny without being too coy and cutesy in Elvis's hands.
For the second set. Elvis came out with a pitchfork, calling himself "Monsenior Napoleon Dynamite." He then unveiled a giant heart, with flags attached representing the deadly sins. A wolfman scoured the crowd for the right woman (no men were chosen) then brought her onstage with Costello. The lucky lady would pick a sin flag, then request an Elvis tune relating to the sin. Despite rumors that Elvis knew what he would play beforehand, and he was only bringing people to the audience for show, this game kept the audience excited, as we waited to see who would be chosen next.
The main reason that Costello featured between-song banter and his giant heart is that the music quality alone was not enough to carry the show Costello said in a recent Musician magazine article that he would have preferred to tour with a full band, but he could not afford to do so. By playing concerts alone, he eliminates salaries for backing musicians and the added travel expenses of taking extra people and instruments on the road.
Elvis's sacrifice to the economic gods above showed. In some ways, we were treated to a cut-rate Elvis. Costello is not a folk musician. His best recent stuff shows a broad popular music influence within a heavily produced, more narrow rock context. A typical cut on the new Spike album, for example, features a good dozen different instruments. Of course, every musician does not play at the same time. Different, weird sounds float in and out of each song, keeping the record interesting. With Costello's rapid-fire vocals and the dense production, it is difficult to understand the lyrics.
Perhaps Costello should not have even attempted to perform with only acoustic guitar. For me. the best folk music tells complex truths and stories in a slow. simple manner. Since Dylan decided that folk was too limited and strapped on his electric guitar, those musicians who have needed more flashy, complicated music to go with their poetry have turned to rock. With its cryptic words, which often require many spins on record and a lyric sheet before the listener can decipher the meaning, Elvis's work is not suited to the solo, acoustic format.
In concert Thursday. the older, simpler songs from Costello's punk/New Wave days worked best. Although he has probably performed songs like "Accidents Will Happen" and "Watching the Detectives" a thousand times, he still invests the songs with appropriate passion and righteous anger And, yes, he did close the show with the crowd favorite, "Alison."
Nick Lowe, of "Cruel to be Kind" fame, opened the show. His thirty-minute set was filled with witty lyrics and even a hit of sell-denigrating humor. He announced from the stage. "Yes. this is certainly not folk music. You are in for a rock and roll evening with top flight, Grade A entertainment. But I'm first." One line from "And So it Goes," a song about concert-going, seemed especially prescient, "Security's so tight tonight. You better keep your backstage
At Costello's request the Student Events security corps was tough, keeping people from standing in the aisles until the very end, when a flood of people rushed the stage. Although it would have been better if dancing, or at least movement, was allowed in the crowd, it seemed somehow symbolic of the controlled, professional entertainment which Elvis offered throughout the night.