Like a lot of new wave acts, Elvis Costello and the Attractions should be seen to be appreciated. Without actually witnessing his contorted musical attack and shifting demeanor onstage, you might be led to believe that Costello is a sneering bastard who snarls and snarls and snarls. Not so; during his 70-minute set at the Ben Light Gym Wednesday night, Costello demonstrated an unusual warmth — he smiled and seemed happy to be playing, and when the audience finally pressed up close to the stage for the encore, he actually looked satisfied, as if the whole concert was just one big, delightful party.
This unusual side of Elvis Costello was quite unexpected, particularly in view of the reports of the seething, surly 45-minute shows he's been known to give on this tour. In the midst of the crowd's ecstatic reaction to Elvis as rock star, I realized that the idea of fame and adulation was once probably very funny to him, yet now he almost took it in stride — there was even a brief plug for Armed Forces stuck in the middle of the set. What this means is that you can still laugh at Costello — or rather that you can laugh with him. Success hasn't made him any less vital a pop personality, and I think Costello above all realizes this.
It took the band four songs to overcome an initially shoddy sound mix, but even that didn't prevent the power and glory of "Goon Squad" — which could have been a paean to the strong-arms blockading the stage from carefully ecstatic fans — from spreading over the audience and making them stand up and feel. About midway through the set, the Attractions hit full tilt, thanks to a pounding version of "Lipstick Vogue," Costello's best rotten-woman anthem. The sound was like a spritely gargantuan, heavy and quick all at once, and featured some weighty drum work from Pete Thomas; not since the Clash's Topper Headon have I seen anyone hit the skins so hard.
The way Elvis and the Attractions charged on and off stage made them seem very cool, but not in the same icy way as a band like Roxy Music. Steve Naive bounced around at his keyboards Like a kid completely taken over by the drone of his rock 'n' roll, bassist Bruce Thomas stalked his territory and threw occasional quick smiles at his drumming brother. and Elvis — Elvis looked like a puppet controlled by an insane, drug-riddled puppetteer. his jerky movements during "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" coinciding with his jerky guitar playing.
The bulk of Costello's show came from Armed Forces, but where the material on the album is mostly quixotic and experimental, onstage it was transformed into throbbing hard rock. "Oliver's Army" sounded menacing instead of quirky, "Big Boys" became a thickly chorded powerhouse, and the stunning. supercharged "Green Shirt" was an exercise in forced rhythm — I longed to beat my hands, my head, anything on the seat during the thunderous four-note hook in each verse. Even unreleased material like "Amateur Hour" and "B-Movies" was shot through with maddened urgency. And just when I thought that perhaps the Attractions had reached an ultimate peak. they charged back on for crackling encore versions of "Pump It Up" — the theme song of the evening — and "You Belong to Me."
The one moment that stands out most in my mind was when Costello sang, in a hoarse voice that wavered and nearly cracked. "My aim is true." in "Alison." It's as close as he ever got to a plea for understanding, and Costello is right — his aim is true, more so than almost any performer in rock, and he heartily deserved all the adulation and acclaim he received.
As if part of some divinely inspired plan to create a nearly perfect evening, the Rubinoos, a Berkeley-based band who opened the show, were nothing short of sensational. They may look like junior-high kids gone berserk (like the Talking Heads ten years ago, perhaps?), but they know as much about what makes pop music tick as Nock Lowe does. Their songs, from the bonkers-adolescent "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" to their covers of "Please Please Me" and the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard," were made-for-gluttonous-consumption power pop treats. Why they don't have a huge following is beyond me — maybe because they're a smart and funny band (as their lead guitarist's perfect Foghat parody demonstrated) in an age where intelligence and humor aren't always given the necessary respect.