They are chanting "El-vis, EI-vls" banging on tables, begging him to return. He is not Presley or any later day plastic surgery reincarnation thereof. He Is a 23-year-old ex-computer programmer from Acton, England, a guy with short hair and Coke-bottle-bottom glasses, dressed in an old suit. He has all the grace and romance of a CPA about him.
Elvis Costello, king of nerd rock, appeared at Moot Hall at Buffalo State College to two sold-out concerts over the weekend. He sang well, and he sang many three-minute long songs that sound good on the radio, which is his aesthetic aim.
Costello has said he doesn't care about playing big overblown rock compositions so that people can try out their fancy stereos. He wants the songs themselves to be what's important, with just enough accompaniment to bring them across.
For his minimalism (a musical version of the dictum "Less is more") he has been lumped together with the punk rock children, or categorized with the nebulous "new wave" of rock 'n' roll. But he's better than that, and one can safely forget the categories when he plays.
Even before he took stage last weekend, the Elvis stories were circulating. Some said he had played in Brockport the night before, and had been booed off stage.
"I like to think that Buffalo is a little ahead of Brockport," said Chuck Mancuso, who teaches an extremely popular course in blues, rock and modern music at Buffalo State. Mancuso put together a list of the top albums of the year in January, and Costello's My Aim Is True was at the top. It was no contest, he said.
Costello was preceded by Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, and it was the standard stuff. Willie plays the androgynous, Mick Jagger lead singer, writhing and jumping and mugging outrageously.
Well, It was outrageous once upon a time. But it all seemed fairly antique last weekend. Kiss and all the other rock theater groups have taken the outrageous so far, that it's a dead issue. Even the Sex Pistols and their form of outrage didn't wash in this country. Willie and the Boom Boom were met with indifference.
But Elvis. He and his band, the Attractions, ran on stage and began to play fast, with no introduction. Hell, with no expressions on their faces, no strange clothes, no glitter, no safety pins piercing their ears or noses. Costello sang his songs of pain and revenge and anger, but aside from raising his eyebrows and pulling his hair now and then, he was impassive. When not singing he stared out of the thick glasses with a slack-jaw, uncomprehending expression. The songs were the passion. The singer was just one more instrument.
Of course, since he does so little, whatever Costello does becomes momentarily very important. He runs to the back of the stage to rip off his guitar, and runs to the mic to zero in on the song, unencumbered. He stares at someone near the front of the stage who seems unmoved by the music and urges the person to get with it. When everyone is indeed with him, he jumps off the stage, jumps onto a table, shakes hands (with never a smile, of course) and sings a chorus face-to-face with those nearby.
In a published interview that comes with promo copies of his album, Elvis pronounces his hatred of the music business, and of the conventional success it brings: retirement at an early age with big bucks and a house in the country.
"I don't want any of that rock 'n' roll rubbish. I don't want to go cruising in Hollywood or hang out at all the star parties. I'm not interested in any of that ... I'm just interested in playing," he said.
He also hates hard rock, and extended solos; music that is all intellect and no heart; synthesizers and "choirs of angels"; romantic mythological song lyrics, like Bruce Springsteen writes; and pretension and show biz in general, it seems.
Claiming no pretension is a pretension in itself, but it's refreshing. Costello in performance is a very impressive actor, with great authority behind the mic. He cuts away some of the ornament of rock 'n' roll, and just sings the songs he wrote.
And that was enough last weekend in Moot Hall.