Elvis Costello has spent his career playing a relentless game of musical bait-and-switch. Often fascinating, sometimes aggravating, the 34-year-old British singer-songwriter has confounded his record companies and conditioned his fans to expect the unexpected.
Rising to critical acclaim and cult stardom on the crest of the late-'70s new-wave movement, Costello -who performs Wednesday at Fiddler's Green in Englewood -has outlasted most of his post-punk peers. Through the years, he has dabbled in updated Memphis soul (Get Happy), traditional country music (Almost Blue), lush, orchestral pop (Imperial Bedroom) and back-to-basics folk music (King of America). The consistent thread running through Costello's 13 albums has been his knack for intriguing imagery and clever wordplay. He also displays a record collector's affection for pop-music history that has led critics to liken him to "Buddy Holly on acid" and label him "the George Gershwin of the '80s."
Costello's latest album, Spike, has been acclaimed as his most ambitious and eclectic effort. With help from such friends as Paul McCartney, Roger McGuinn, Allen Toussaint and Chrissie Hynde, he covers such topics as God, senility, capital punishment and Margaret Thatcher, against such backdrops as Irish folk, jazz-funk, gospel, rockabilly and jangly pop. Even though Spike has been certified gold (sales of 500,000 copies) and spawned a hit single ("Veronica"), Costello wasn't aiming for the charts.
"The one thing I was determined not to do on this album was make the patronizing pop single that somehow made everything else "acceptable," he recently told Musician magazine. "It's not that these songs are so important,' but this is what I took my time to write about. There's no point leaving one of them off because it might depress people. If they want a nice, easy ride and cheerful music, there's plenty of other records in the racks. "I don't think I'm making any huge demands on your intelligence. I just see things differently."
Costello's stubborn artistic vision and defiant stance against the trappings of rock stardom have branded him a troublemaker since 1979, when a racial slur against Ray Charles triggered a fistfight with members of Stephen Stills' band in a Columbus, Ohio, bar. Costello formally apologized for that remark, which he blamed on poor judgment clouded by vodka and an overzealousness to live up to his image as an angry young man. But the fallout from that incident overshadowed his prolificacy (he released two albums a year between 1978 and 1982) and maturing talent.
"I had all these ludicrous sort of things to live up to, and I reacted badly to it," Costello admitted to Rolling Stone magazine. "The misconception is that I was a two-headed monster to begin with. I only turn into a two-headed monster when people give me justification. All impressions to the contrary, I'm a very nice guy."
Lately, Costello has been showing a more playful side in concert: During the Blood and Chocolate tour in 1986, which featured a giant Spinning Songbook, fans were invited onstage to spin the wheel to determine the next song. Earlier this year, Costello embarked on a solo tour of college campuses. The tour set featured a giant satin heart sectioned into a variety of deadly sins that ranged from the seven familiar ones to such new ones as "bogus insights" and "awesomeness."
Costello's current tour, however, is all music and no gimmicks. According to early reviews, fans who attend Wednesday's Fiddler's Green concert can expect a generous, two-hour show drawn mostly from such recent LPs as Spike, King of America and Blood and Chocolate. His new band — the Rude 5 + 1 — consists of percussionist Michael Blair, guitarist Mark Ribot, drummer Pete Thomas (the lone holdover from Costello's original band, the Attractions), bassist Jerry Scheff (who played with Elvis Presley), keyboardist Larry Knechtel and guitarist Steven Soles.
Costello reportedly has been pulling out such classic favorites as "Accidents Will Happen," "Pump It Up" and "Alison," and is also performing several solo acoustic numbers, including the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said."