From the beginning, just the name Elvis Costello conjured images of chiding nonconformity — both a dig on the way we iconify performers and a prideful prophecy that came to pass. Costello has become one of the best songwriters of his time, of any genre. But his gift for lyricism and musical atmosphere would work in any time frame. Forty years ago he'd have simply been Cole Porter, with an even darker side.
Costello and the Attractions — Pete Thomas (drums), Steve Nieve (keyboards) and Bruce Thomas (bass) — took the bare Blossom stage on an unseasonably chilly night and warmed up the pavilion with over two hours of classics, beginning with "Hand In Hand," and cuts from his newest release, Brutal Youth.
Re-worded by Costello, standard rock clichés transformed themselves into eloquent expressions. The typical "This one's for you guys out on the lawn," became "This is for those of you out there in the gathering gloom." A relatively small crowd shivered in approval and hung in through three encores, knowing well what they were witnessing was unique, long before Costello told them, "We don't know when and we don't know if we'll ever see you again."
Listening to Costello vent, rhapsodize and satirize his way through 28 songs was more fun than past outings. Basically, he just seemed happy to be there. He even played the guitarslinger, happily wanking away through lead parts handled by as many as two guitarists in concerts past. And though the stage was virtually bare, his vocal interpretations added more than enough drama and wit.
Bathed in the red glow of a spotlight, looking like Satan in a Broadway musical, Costello cried almost sheepishly, "This is hell," and launched into his tongue-in-cheek song of the same name, which he dedicated to "anyone whose ever been really embarrassed." The brief red period was completed with "Red Shoes."
Eventually, most of the favorites — from "Accidents Will Happen" to "Watching The Detectives" — were tapped, though this was by no means a Jurassic tour.
In fact, many of the standout numbers came from the new album. "Clown Strike" became a film noir operetta showcasing the considerable talents of Nieve, who lived up to the Beethoven bust that stood watch from his piano.
Three encores boasted "Radio Radio," "Veronica," "What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding" and "Pump It Up." An inventive R&B take on "Alison" segued into a medley of "Tracks Of My Tears" and "Tears Of A Clown" — inexplicably interspersed with entertaining, but unknown, new cuts "Just About Glad" and "Still To Soon To Know.'" I guess anyone with the guts to tell Paul McCartney how to play is allowed to pick what he wants for the encore.
The appreciative pavilion was nearly full by the time Crash Test Dummies and lead vocalist, Brad Roberts, showed up to open the set with his lush baritone and curious lyrics, drawn primarily from the album God Shuffled His Feet.
The Dummies' frontman maintained a conversational tone with the audience, introducing songs with clever anecdotes. There was the insight into the development of their most popular song, "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," which he joked he had toyed with replacing with the chorus, "F--kin' shitly / F--kin' shitly." Continuing to put a humorous spin on the serious song, Roberts subbed one verse with a tale of a kid who was cheated out of a prime show-and-tell item by a mother who left his jar of tonsils for the trashman.
One of the best moments of the night was backup vocalist/keyboardist Ellen Reid's. Her solo on a spirited jump blues number broke her usual low-key reserve. She practically wailed while quirky sideman Benjamin Darvill swayed, bopped and weaved on accompanying harmonica.
Roberts came back to offer another literate take on life — this time on aging — with "Afternoons And Coffeespoons." The night finished with "Superman's Song" from their first record, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, but it could have easily gone on to encores had the crowd had their way.
Slack Jaw are at a critical stage in their career, and it's a bit of a dilemma. The pop songwriting skills that got them noticed in the beginning are the foundation of their personality as a band; but the power of their still-developing live show seems to be hurling them headlong down a grungey side road. And you can just feel a fork in the road coming.
Both John Koury and Chris Leonardi's voices served them well through "Blinded," "I Could Crack" and a Replacements cover that were the best received songs of the set. The band drew and held a growing crowd until it was ready to let them go.
So what's the problem? Mostly tiny, niggling, nebulous ones. Slack Jaw are still somewhat awkward on stage. Their hesitance and lack of a definitive finish to most songs robs the crowd of the reaction time needed to respond. Hopefully, that will pass when their confidence level catches up with their ability. In the mean time, the natural talent that blessed them with notoriety will also curse them with the task of doing all their growing up on stage instead of in the rehearsal hall.
More serious is the fact that, as the band grows harder, it runs the risk of losing the diversity and depth that made it such an interesting contradiction in the first place. With Slack Jaw's musicianship and songwriting chops, forsaking one style for the other would be a real shame.