There’s no question that a special sort of bond exists between Elvis Costello and his audience. Few high-intensity rockers would dare open their first Chicago appearance in almost two years with a brand new ballad, accompanied only by spare solo piano backing. Few audiences would stand through it with rapt attention, as the full house at the Uptown Theater did Saturday night.
What makes Costello so special? Within the pages of a rock magazine a few months back, some light was shed on the Costello mystique from a most unusual source.
According to singer David Lee Roth, self-styled stud from the heavy-metal Van Halen band, the reason Elvis gets a much better critical response than a band like Van Halen is that most critics look more like the unassuming Costello.
While I think Roth’s a little off the mark (surprisingly enough, all the rock reviewers that I know bear a closer resemblance to Robert Mitchum or Tyrone Power than to either of these callow rock ‘n’ roll upstarts), there’s a kernel of truth in his observation. Bespectacled, knock-kneed, too slight to withstand a strong breeze. Costello’s got something of the common touch, especially when compared with all the he-men and pretty boys who once dominated rock ‘n’ roll. A rock Walter Mitty, he has shown that the fantasy is within the reach of anyone.
Of course, beauty (or lack thereof) is only skin deep. If Elvis’ appearance rings true, his material does so even more. In contrast to the bluster and the swagger that once defined the typical rock stance, Costello’s songs are filled with the vulnerability of a man who knows what it’s like to be “second place in the human race” and the integrity of an artist who has risen above it on his own terms.
Over the course of 75 minutes at the Uptown, Elvis crammed in 26 songs, giving his audience more – more of himself and more passion per second than practically any other rocker around. In concert, his ballads cut deeper than on record, his rockers drive with more urgency. And his singing consistently stays close to the heart.
WITH THE BULK of Saturday night’s selections taken from last year’s “Get Happy!!” album and the forthcoming “Trust,” Costello and his three-piece band, the Attractions, displayed a balance between melody and intensity matched by few in rock. Their crisp, controlled interplay combined a musical empathy reminiscent of a classic ‘60s ensemble such as Booker T. & the MGs with a dynamism that was thoroughly contemporary.
As always with a Costello show, there were a few surprises. This time through, he acquitted himself admirably on the “other” Elvis’ “Little Sister,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me,” a Patsy Cline tune and a snippet of Stevie Wonder’s “Masterblaster,” demonstrating once again that great fans generally make the greatest rock artists.
WHILE CALLING a concert the best of the year means little at this point, someone will have to go a ways to beat this one. Elvis Costello remains that most welcome of rock rarities – a superb craftsman who consistently penetrates deeper than craft to an emotional core. He may not fit the classic rock star mold, but I can’t help thinking that a world in which Costello can become a rock sensation is a better place than we might have suspected.
Opening as Costello’s hand-picked support act was Squeeze, a young British band with a knack for inventive, rhythmically insistent pop material. While Squeeze has a lot of good ideas, their music might be more striking if they didn’t feel compelled to pack so many of them into each number.