Elvis Costello gave a few lessons in audience manipulation last Wednesday evening at the New Coffee House.
It was early in the second show and a few members of the audience decided that throwing debris on stage would be the "punk thing to do."
As they soon found out, it was the wrong thing to do.
Costello and his band — The Attractions — had just finished their fourth number (a reworded "Less Than Zero") when Elvis became enraged by a paper wad that flew past him.
The last notes of "Less Than Zero" had yet to fade from the sound system when Costello unleashed a string of obscenities at the audience to express his displeasure with the flying trash, and his desire to find out who was on the throwing end. Bassist Bruce Thomas accompanied Costello's anger by viciously kicking his microphone stand at the audience.
Within 30 seconds of Costello's four-letter word oratory, the house lights went on and Costello invited his assailant to approach the stage.
Costello's roadies and the New Coffee House ushers had another thing in mind, and the first member of the audience to accept Costello's challenge found himself forcibly ejected.
This was the turning point of Elvis' second show. Up until that point, Costello appeared to be very nervous and his movements were stiff and very limited. Costello's discomfort was apparent to the audience and despite an occasional demonic Johnny Rotten-ish glare from Elvis, most of the audience laughed at the British new-waver and for the most part, seemed to derive amusement from "watching the defectives."
But after Costello's challenge of the audience, the relationship between performer and audience changed drastically. The audience became nervous, intimidated and when the band ended one of its songs, all that could be heard was an eerie dead silence. This audience was at Costello's mercy.
Once Elvis established control, he held on to it masterfully. Every so often he would display his anger in key parts of his songs and it was tough to tell if he was keeping in context of the song or scolding the crowd or both. Whatever, the audience wasn't about to argue, and when Elvis demanded that the entire audience rise to its feet for his last number, the order was carried out.
Nobody seemed to care that Elvis used the concert as a testing ground for his new material, with only four of the set's 12 songs coming from My Aim Is True. (Although in the first show, Costello devoted more time to his older material.)
In addition, there were almost no complaints as to Costello's failure to manipulate his guitar as he did the audience.
One listen to the superb My Aim Is True album makes it obvious that Costello is hardly a Jeff Beck or Carlos Santana on guitar, but during Wednesday's show, Costello's guitar was more of a prop than part of the music. There were almost no solos, and those that did exist were either rehashings of the song's melody line or monotonous single-note triple picking drills. During one of the final songs, Costello broke a guitar string and if one closed his eyes, it would've been impossible to tell the difference.
In the absence of a commanding guitar, the organ was the dominating instrument. Unfortunately, the stark trebly sixties-ish keyboards obscured the real power of "Waiting For The End Of The World" and "Mystery Dance." Of the four songs played from Elvis' album, only the suspenseful "Watching The Detectives" lived up to the album version.
The brightest spots of the show came during Costello's new material. The band actually delivered these songs with full power rather than running through numb covers of the album material. Most of the new tunes shifted between the irate rock power of "I'm Not Angry" and the reggae influence of "Watching the Detectives" (Costello and his band had just seen Toots and the Maytals in San Francisco the night before).
But looking past the potential of the new songs and the solid bass work of Thomas, there was little to this show besides Costello's anger act (or was it an act?) But for this intrigued audience (many who wore Grateful Dead T-shirts and probably had never experienced anything this side of mellow) Costello was overwhelming and the unrequited demands for an encore carried on even after the house lights went on.
Psychotic Pineapple, who opened the show, could have learned a few things from Elvis about audience control. The four-piece band who specialized in psychedelic music from the mid to late sixties, was heckled by an audience impatient for Elvis. Pineapple was at its best doing ridiculous covers of such material as the Kinks' "I Need You" and the Rubinoos' "Rock and Roll Is Dead," with the songs broken up by silly jokes and descriptions of everything as "weed" or "laird." Yet this band didn't take itself too seriously and there's really no reason anyone else should have either.