The Costello show came to town with three distinctive nights of urgent music.
Elvis Costello as self-styled "knock-kneed, mishappen misanthrope of rock" presented diverse sides of his new emotive style, as exhibited on his new album Blood and Chocolate. Recently, Costello has gone through many changes in his life — he remarried, reclaimed his original name (Declan MacManus), and added a sharper edge to his singing. The format for the three shows followed the transformation of his life. Costello played solo part of the evenings and had two separate backing bands to accompany him.
On the first night, October 8, the Attractions (Steve Nieve, keyboards; Bruce Thomas, bass; and Pete Thomas, drums) were tight, intense and swinging behind Elvis for over two dozen songs. Optimistic as an opener, but as a solitary show, this concert was a fun, danceable, and feet shuffling tour through Costello classics and Blood and Chocolate. Elvis did most of the songs from the new LP, including a ripping bluesy, "Battered Old Bird," to a teary, plaintive, "I Want You," and ended the encore, joined by his new wife, guitarist Cait O'Riordian of the Pogues, for a loud, overpowering feedback version of "Poor Napoleon."
On Thursday night, the stage had a large game-show-wheel of forty Costello tunes, a gaudy go-go cage and a small bar with a TV. Following in this weirdness, Elvis, as host "Napoleon Dynamite," opened the show by entering the hall from the back. He walked up the aisle to the stage while explaining the format of the show. Song contestants were picked out of the audience by "Dynamite" and a roving spotlight. "The Spectacular Spinning Songbook" was ready to start.
This set-up gave Costello an opportunity to show wit and to parody himself by saying things like "I get mistaken for Elvis Costello, actually I only just look like him."
Elvis acted a congenial host to the song-spinners and once they were installed in the go-go or at the "society-lounge" he would launch unhesitantly right back, with the Attractions, into Elvis Costello the pop/cult star performer.
This second show especially exhibited Costello's efforts to be unique and break from the tradition of rock and roll. Bizarre in concept, and even though it took over an hour to pick and perform eight selections, "The Spectacular Spinning Songbook" was entertaining and amusing. The musical highlight of the evening was a break in the show with Costello taking a moving solo turn at six songs, including "The Only Flame in Town," "Radio Sweetheart," and a haunting rendition of the Psychedelic Fur's hit "Pretty in Pink."
The last half of the show was hosted by a dead-pan, embarrassed Huey Lewis. But, he wasn't too embarrassed to play harmonica on a scorching version of Sonny Boy Williamson's, "Help Me" during the encore.
Costello started the last show by showing his "holiday pictures" on a slide screen and accompanying them with narration, song and guitar for half an hour. The opening version of the hit, "Tokyo Storm Warning," was quirky and absurd as he would pick a few chords, stop and explain about a lyric and continue and then stop to talk again. The audience was quiet and rapt most of the evening, only getting to their feet for the encore.
Costello was backed by the Confederates, part of whom were the core of Elvis Presley's TCB Band with bassist Jerry Scheff and guitarist James Burton, and session musicians like keyboardist Mitch Froom, the dexterous Jim Keltner on drums, and rhythm guitarist T-Bone Burnett, who produced Costello's show LP King of America. The main body of the show was made up of selections from this album, which the Confederates all worked on.
The Confederates were playing as a backdrop to Elvis, only occasionally breaking into a solo. The timing and flow of the tunes in a modern country style were beautifully executed. The occasional playing of guest saxophonist Steve Douglas filled out the songs for a brilliant night of top musicianship.
Shedding the moniker, Elvis Costello the new Declan MacManus, has a great body of work behind him since he began recording in late 1976. He takes his songs through unusual settings in a live show. He brings conviction and authority to each single performance. He continues to create twisted lyrics and non-formulaic melodies.
Through these varied shows he has broken new ground in the stale rock concert arena, which is always refreshing. and entertaining.