Typical rock savoir faire is not one of Elvis Costello's strong points. His image, in fact, is that of the Woody Allen-type antihero: pigeon-toed, unfashionable, hopelessly unhip; the kind of wimp every girl prays will not ask her to the senior prom. It is an image so weird, it is fascinating, its jerky awkwardness somehow complementing perfectly — for now, anyway — the kind of exuberant, Buddy Hollyish style of rock that has made Costello hot stuff in some circles.
But not too many. "Elvis who?" is still the general reaction to mention of Costello, followed by, "Is he one of those stupid imitators?" No, and neither is the singer exactly the proverbial household word. Nor are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who headlined a bargain-deal ($3 admission) bill that featured Costello Friday night at the Riviera Theater. Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions have a way to go in the move from critical acclaim to the wider, mass-scale success they deserve. But both are on their way and both are highly appealing.
Petty and Costello have dipped heavily into the past for their present musical styles, though their stage images — Petty's pretty-boy, Costello's terminally out-to-lunch — are vastly different. When it comes down to it, of course, what is really important is their music. While it is obvious that Costello's carefully contrived appearance has a perverse appeal, his music stands by itself and will continue to do so after he outgrows the rest of the trappings.
In many ways, chiefly those having to do with spirit, Costello's songs are reminiscent of those of the late Buddy Holly in their uptempo, wholehearted exuberance. The songs are occasionally enigmatic, often romantic, and always short (None of this extended solo stuff; guitarist Costello and the members of his three-piece band probably couldn't pull that off very well, anyway). But for all of its roots in the past, the chief charm of Costello's music lies in its freshness. The influences are there, but synthesized into a sound that is not only highly contemporary, but deftly distinctive.
Likewise, the Florida-born Petty and the Heartbreakers (who have so far met with more success In Britain than in the United States) have taken threads from the past — the 1960s, and particularly the music of the Byrds and Bob Dylan — and reshaped, them into a '70s style. The key word is reshaped, rather than regurgitated. Singer Petty and his energetic band make their own contributions along the way, producing pop-rock that can hit hard. Classifications come hard, too; Petty at times fits into the New Wave niche — but never into the punk rock camp, with which a lot of folks tend to associate the band. There's nothing punk about Petty, in either sense of the word.