After a year's absence from the U.S. tour circuit, Elvis Costello is back on the road, snazzed up in some ways, stripped down in others. For the feisty British singer who first grabbed attention a few years back with his pithy songs, aggressively wimpy appearance and pigeontoed stance — a mannered marriage in which nerd met the new wave — some modifications have clearly been in order, judging from Costello's Saturday night show at the Uptown Theater.
Gone are the baggy suits, thin ties, and horn rims; this year's model sports semi-formal attire (including a pearl-grey jacket and vest, paisley cravat, and color-coordinated guitar) and glasses with rosy-tinted lenses, a fashionable if ironic touch given the fact that Costello has never been one to view much of anything through rose-colored glasses. Gone, too, is the jerky pigeontoed stage posture, a contrived cartoon touch that was at best only mildly amusing and quickly wore thin. And finally, compared to his past stage stance, in which he seemed to be in a perpetual snit, Costello now seems a veritable Mr. Congeniality.
His music, however, remains much the same, a mixture of terse, catchy songs, often polemic, short on sentiment and long on frustration, and shamelessly slushy, emotional ballads about love perennially gone awry. Costello's vocal range, like his technical ability as a guitarist, is limited, but the energy and passion he projects makes him nonetheless effective. Similarly, while his debt to the music of the late '50s and early '60s and such artists as Buddy Holly is evident, the urgency of his approach and the heartfelt accompaniment pumped out by his three-piece-band, the Attractions, strikes a note that is both contemporary and timeless.
In the past, I have found Costello's performances far less appealing. While he has been admirably adept at distilling the most appealing aspects of vintage rock into an often invigorating and fairly original dose of present-day pop, his snotty and stylized stage persona seemed brittle, chilly and exasperatingly silly. Shorn of affectations, however, Costello comes across as a far more powerful and effective performer.
Also on the bill was Squeeze, a British quintet that turned out a fine set of blues based pop-rock with occasional new wave overtones. Since the band's last appearance here, they've replaced the cigar-chomping electric keyboard player with a less flamboyant one and seem to have taken a turn for the more melodic. While their sound isn't particularly unusual, it's entertaining, and executed well. What puzzles me is why some bands apparently aren't happy unless they can bully folks to their feet, which is what Squeeze's otherwise likeable lead vocalist attempted to do Saturday night. It's gratifying, I'm sure, for a band to get a standing ovation, but it would seem that the victory might ring a trifle hollow when the lead singer has to repeatedly scream "Get up! Get up!" at the audience in order to accomplish it.