Confirming rumors that he's put on a little extra poundage, Elvis Costello showed up for his recent gigs at New York's Palladium positively puffy, looking like a short Henry Kissinger. Dressed in his ever-present suit, he sported a pushed-up burgundy silk tie and rose-colored glasses. Reports that he's in training for the lead role in Raging Bull II are emphatically denied.
Distinctly more jovial than on past tours, El now often breaks out in unabashed grins. "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused." "Good evenin'," he purred while perusing the 3500 people in the sellout crowd. "Well, it's better than goin' to church."
Still backed by the ever-tough Attractions, this tour marked the return of keyboardist Steve Nieve who was out of action last year.
"Steve was in a car accident last May," informs Martin Belmont, Graham Parker and the Rumour guitarist, now playing with Elvis. "Last tour we decided not to try and replace him, and just went with two guitars, bass and drums." This tour was Elvis's first using keyboards along with two guitars, thereby muscling up the overall sound.
Kicking off the set, the band tore into "Just A Memory," followed quickly by "Accidents Will Happen" and "New Amsterdam." It suddenly became apparent that this was a new Elvis musically as well, as a vocal evolution he had hinted at on recent records exploded full force on this current tour. In songs like "You Better Watch Your Step," "Opportunity" and the classic "Red Shoes," Elvis has become a crooner in the rockingest sense of the word. His vocals have taken on an increasingly dramatic and theatrical edge to the extent that each song is now a "treatment." Not that he hasn't been a remarkable singer in the past, he just never cared as much about technique as he does now. Having recorded and/or performed recently with such vocal stylists as George Jones and Delbert McClinton may have had something to do with this transformation. Yet, many of Elvis's fans may be unaware of some of his major influences, thinking he's just punker with little sense of history.
"There are a lot of people I admire," he said the Tuesday night following the Palladium dates, "[including] some people you might not expect, like Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hart. I also really like Hank Williams."
On ballads like "Alison" and Patsy Cline's C&W classic, "She's Got You," Elvis wrenched every sob out of the lyrics. In addition to blowing the crowd away with his singing, he — and this was the shocker — wowed 'em with his moves! Yes moves, not just that old pointy-toed Costello lurch. He did Teddy Pendergrass moves, O'Jays moves, you name it. On "Clowntime Is Over," Elvis got down. Taking advantage of the first song in the set where he didn't have to play guitar, El shook his hips, slithered to and from the mike, and clenched his fists while the audience gasped and squealed. On the Motown-flavored "Love for Tender," he boxed the beat with a one-two punch and then did a solo two-step in perfect time. And on the powerhouse tunes like "Radio Radio," "You Belong to Me," "Big Tears" and "Lover's Walk," his vocals were pure spitfire. The Attractions were right there with him, pounding the message home. Martin Belmont, on for the last 14 songs of the set, played bristling rhythms and leads, and added furious rip chords to "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding." Elvis even added a spirited guitar solo to "Temptation." The show ended with an uplifting version of "Watching the Detectives," which was used as a launchpad for Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster" and back again. All in all, 26 songs in 84 minutes, a marked contrast to his first tours when he would do a dozen songs and blaze on and off in 40 minutes.
Warming up the crowd for Elvis, Squeeze (having replaced Jools Holland with Paul Carrack from Ace) turned in a eminently hummable performance featuring many of their catchiest tunes. From the older "Bang Bang" and "Goodbye Girl" to their best songs from Argybargy ("Pulling Mussels From The Shell)" and "If I Didn't Love You"), they reminded one of early 10cc, especially on "I Think I'm Go Go" — pop at its best. Guitarist and lead singer Glenn Tilbrook is the perfect frontman, winsome and energized, with a cool, pure voice. Paul Carrack offered up "How Long," a 1976 hit he wrote for Ace, while for the rest of Squeeze's set the pop songs just kept rolling. Squeeze debuted two new ones, "Mumbo Jumbo" and "Somebody Else's Heart."
For the last song in Costello's regular set, Tilbrook sprinted onstage to share the vocals on "From a Whisper to a
Scream." It was the pop singer and the crooner, who by this time was drenched in perspiration; the shoulders and back of Elvis's weathered, grey sportcoat made him look as if he'd been laying in a lake. Doesn't he know crooners aren't supposed to sweat? You ever see Tony Bennett sweat? Nah. But then, Elvis always was a radical.