NEW YORK — The summer concert schedule transports pop-music lovers back to the late 1970s or early '80s. Three of the top touring shows that recently made New York appearances were Elvis Costello, reunited with his original band the Attractions; the Pretenders, doing their first tour in years; and Pink Floyd, who, despite the loss of Roger Waters, has turned out a smash hit album, "The Division Bell." and whose stadium tour is setting attendance records around the country.
Costello hasn't toured with the Attractions since 1986, but with them he made some of his best albums, including such seminal releases as My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces. The group (consisting of Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums, and Bruce Thomas on bass) recently played with Costello on his new album Brutal Youth. The concert, which played in Central Park, contained much new material and a generous sampling of songs from earlier albums, many of which Costello hasn't played in public in years.
The last time Costello toured, he performed The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, and it was a highly decorous event. So the impact of seeing him play pure rock-and-roll with his original band was intensified. The singer, in fine voice and even better mood, seemed charged up by the occasion. Not only did the weak material from the new album sound better in concert, more powerful and less fussy, but the older songs played better than ever. Sticking more or less to the original arrangements, featuring the powerful drumming of Thomas and the swirling keyboards of Nieve, the group played muscular versions of some of Costello's best songs, including "Accidents Will Happen." "Alison." "Watching the Detectives." "Pump It Up." and many others. But this was no nostalgia show. The power of the songs was a perfect illustration of the musical vitality of the punk-new wave era.
Costello wasn't above having a little stylistic fun, either. Commenting dryly that "some of you older people in the audience may remember this, it comes from the 1980s." he played a speeded-up version of his "Every Day I Write the Book." and his performance of "Alison" segued into a cover of "Tracks of My Tears" that demonstrated his under-appreciated talent for soulful singing.
When Costello melodramatically announced at the end of the show, "We don't know when we'll see you again, or if we'll ever see you again." it wasn't coming from the pique of a singer who wants to break free of his band. It was coming from the restless artistic spirit of one of the most vital singer-songwriters of the rock era. Seeing him live, with the best band he has ever played with, is a summer musical thrill not to be missed.
By the way, the show is also one of the better values of the summer, since the opening act could be headliners themselves, the Canadian group Crash Test Dummies. A ubiquitous MTV presence with their supremely catchy hit, "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." this group offers a melodic blend of pop-rock, and lead singer Brad Roberts's deep bass voice is one of the most distinctive in rock. He also offers witty deadpan commentary, with a delivery that blends Tom Snyder and Frank Zappa.