At the close of his 1977 yearend debut tour of the United States. British new wave rocker Elvis Costello was reported to have found, of the 14 cities he played, Chicago most to his liking. "People were rude, you know?" he was quoted in a news magazine. "People on the West Coast were so nice it was driving me mad."
Fair or not, Costello's fondness figured in terms of his image, which is very much an "angry young man." His music, however, is miles from the fuzzy smash-the-state, quash-the-queen type of stuff favored by some of his countrymen. Instead, Costello's songs are in some ways a throwback to Buddy Hollyish, early '60s style rock in terms of melodies, with some '70s reggae rhythms tossed in every so often (as in his current single, "Watching the Detectives").
What makes Costello captivating, or at least interesting, besides his briefly amusing visual appeal or lack of it (Woody Allen-type wimp, carefully honed), is the sense of energy and urgency that pervades his basically pop songs. Because his style is far less abrasive or esoteric than most other new wave or punk groups, it's probably no accident that Costello has achieved more commercial, Top 40-type success than any of the others (his first album, My Aim Is True, has now nuzzled its way into position No. 39 on one best-seller chart).
Friday night, Costello and his three-piece band, the Attractions, headlined a triple-header at the Aragon Ballroom, with Mink DeVille and Nick Lowe filling out the bill. As for Costello, his live show has improved tremendously over the concert he gave in December at the Riviera Theater. The backing remains the same — bass, keyboards, and drums, with Costello on guitar — but the sound seems to have assumed far fuller proportions, while Costello has become surer of himself as a performer.
His awkward mannerisms now are obviously there on purpose, and his trademark pigeon-toed walk already seems contrivedly tiresome. What bothers me a bit about Costello is the quality of novelty about him that has garnered him so much attention: novelty type acts as a rule have little staying power. While Costello's music in undeniably energetic and distinctive, even highly enjoyable, its energy seems almost self-contained, remote. For the long haul, I'll take the juicy emotion of Mink DeVille.
Led by singer Willy DeVille, the New York-spawned Mink DeVille fits loosely into the new wave bag, though its approach is basically on the soulful side, featuring lots of slower songs and saxophone work. There's also a passionate air of street-tough romance about the band, complimented perfectly by Willy DeVille's appearance — with his black bushy pompadour, three-piece suit, and lilac shirt, he exudes a kind of sleazy sensuality in keeping with his seductive vocal style.
Nick Lowe, the opening act, has a raft of rock credits to his name, having played with Brinsley Schwarz and later produced albums for Graham Parker and Costello. These days Lowe is producing what his latest album titles Pure Pop for Now People, and accurately so. Backed up by the group Rockpile, Lowe thrashed out a set of short, powerful pop-rock tunes in spirited style. Lowe's set was brief, but it's a good bet we'll be hearing more from him in the future.