PASSAIC — Elvis Costello has an interesting relationship with his audience. He avoids the press, reportedly despises American rock fans and recently has given concerts that are inexcusably short and uninspired.
Friday night's performance at the Capitol Theater, the opening of Costello's whirlwind tour through the New York metropolitan area, was unfortunately no exception to this recent trend. Costello's 55-minute show was a slap in the face to fans who paid anywhere from $7.50 to $30 (from scalpers) for tickets to see the rising British star.
Costello, a former computer technician named Declan Patrick MacManus, is the first British New Wave artist to successfully cross over into the mainstream pop rock idiom. His career has been buoyed by consistent FM radio airplay and his latest album, Armed Forces, is climbing toward the top of the charts.
Yet the brilliant production work of Nick Lowe, which shines on Armed Forces, was lost in the over-amplified din of Costello's PA system. Rock music is meant to be played loud, very loud in fact, but at a certain decibel level the vocals, guitars and drums blend into one inaudible mess. In the case of a group like the Ramones, this can work to an advantage. But with Costello, whose lyrics are simply wonderful, the result was frustrating.
This is not to say the lyrics were completely lost; they weren't. During "Alison," a beautiful ballad which was perhaps the highlight of the show, Costello's vocals were clear and crisp, echoing through the ancient theater with a haunting chill.
But the rest of the concert was not as enjoyable. Dressed in a tuxedo and wearing his thick dark glasses. Costello kept his face right next to the microphone during most of the 12-song set and avoided any unnecessary movement or guitar work. The anger one usually associates with Costello was either ill-conveyed or nonexistent.
Backed by his band the Attractions. Costello whisked through songs from his new album, including "Accidents Will Happen," "Goon Squad" and "Oliver's Army," an anti-imperialism protest song with a catchy pop melody that sounds as if it was written in 1965. Costello also reached back for some old numbers like "The Beat" and "Watching the Detectives," one of the few numbers where Costello was able to whip the crowd into a fervor.
It is unfortunate that an artist with Costello's talent can treat his fans with such disrespect. "Go out and spend your American dollars," he told the crowd in what was either a poor attempt at humor or another display of Costello's anti-Americanism. (Rock singer Bonnie Bramlett reportedly punched Costello in the mouth last week after Costello made some remarks about American blues singers which were interpreted as racist.)
In these days of exorbitant ticket prices, fans are not likely to waste their money twice on a performer who doesn't seem to care a bit about his audience. Next time around, Elvis Costello may get the message.
Opening the Costello show were the Rubinoos, a four-member band from California who mirror with ease the fun and sun sounds of the mid-'60s. In addition to their own compositions, which were pleasant, the band, led by guitarist Tommy Dunbar, roused the crowd with versions of the Beatles' "Please Please Me" and the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run," the instrumental classic.