Rochester — Elvis Costello's third album, Armed Forces, has gone gold only two months after its release, and Saturday night's show at the Auditorium Theater here offered further evidence that he's well on the way to the huge success he deserves — and badly wants. But Costello's 80-minute set, dominated by material from Armed Forces, demonstrated that stardom will be on his terms: he rocks hard and doesn't budge an inch, to his audience or anyone else.
Elvis opened with a new song. "Victim of Circumstance," and played two other songs unavailable on record, along with a stunning version of "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," which is available only as in import. He mocked radio stations, rebuked cops who tried to clear the aisles and backed instructions to the crowd.
Onstage, Costello's songs were far more forceful than on record. Drummer Pete Thomas's poundings outdid any of his studio works, aided by a sound system that inched louder and louder as the set progressed. And while Costello's songs often fade to a weak finish on record, in concert he ended them forcefully with brief flurries of chords.
The singer and his three-piece band, the Attractions, offered a case study in visual and jeans, Elvis looked every bit the angry ex-computer programmer. Bassist Bruce Thomas, clad in an offwhite summer suit, white shirt and beige tie, seemed to be a dazed Oxford refugee, while brother Pete on drums could have fit in with The Clash, with his battered sleeveless t-shirt. A gaudy striped shirt and red sneakers made keyboardist Steve Naiive a natural Twiggy press agent, circa 1967.
While Elvis's guitar is subordinated to Naiive's keyboards on Armed Forces, it dominated the band's live sound. But Naiive, too, far outstrips his recorded performance. His virtuoso work on "Oliver's Army" and "Two Little Hitlers," and especially on "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," managed at last to sound more like The Doors' Ray Manzarek than the organist on the Monkees' "I'm a Believer." On "Chelsea," "On the Beat" and the inevitable "Watching the Detectives," he and Elvis did some nifty improvising, but never strayed so far from the original melody that they couldn't get back.
Elvis eschewed softer songs like "Little Triggers" or "Alison" in favor of relentless hard rock; "Accidents Will Happen" was performed with the band, loudly. The set shifted into high gear with "On the Beat," dedicated to fans who had just gotten thrown out of the aisles by "those men with the badges and the blue uniforms." Surging through "Accidents Will Happen," "Lipstick Vogue" and "Watching the Detectives," he closed with "Radio Radio." saluting the deejays "playing that Muzak" on American stations — stations that "shall go nameless, but you know who they are." Of course, aided by a big push from Columbia Records, Elvis is getting plenty of airplay on some of those stations, but like he says, "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me." He. returned for encores of "Pump It Up" and "You Belong to Me."
Elvis Costello wants success badly, not for the big bucks, but because he thinks he has something to say. During Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding," the lights (excellent throughout the show) bathed Elvis in bright white while the band was colored in blood red — the message being that Elvis is "light in the darkness of insanity." Well, maybe yes, maybe no, but at any rate, don't miss him at I.C. next month.
There'll be even less cause to miss him if the Rubinoos are the opening act again. The two-guitars/bass/drums outfit from Berkeley opened with an a capella sendup of fifties bands, moved into a rocker built around the theme from "The Munsters" and continued with original numbers like "Hold Me" and "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" that betrayed a rock sensibility frozen somewhere before "Rubber Soul." Giving the game away, they then played first-rate covers of "Please Please Me" ("That was of course by the Rutles, our favorite band") and Tommy James and the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now." They closed with a Ted Nugent parody, "Rock and Roll Is Dead, and We Don't Care." What can you expect from a band that got their name because their lead singer's last name is Rubin? The Rubinoos recall overnight camp and AM radio in the summer of 1967, and there's nothing wrong with that.