New York — It had been 10 months since I last saw Elvis Costello; in between I'd watched him play footsie with Tom Snyder, straight man to George Jones, and come close to a critical/commercial disaster with his bi-annual "no more concerts" rumor. To his credit none of these setbacks harmed his reputation one iota; the ad in the Village Voice invited us to bring in the New Year with Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Almost Blue Almost 1982" it read. The same day the concert was sold out.
December 31, 1981: Outside the Palladium a Costello clone is getting soaked to the skin, and the never say die scalpers are doing brisk business. Inside the foyer the clientele are being given free Costello calendars and lining up to buy cheap plonk. On stage NRBQ are winning over a less than willing audience. With the exception of about 10 diehard fans in the second row, only the numerous rock critics have heard of the band. NRBQ win their way into our hearts through a set that proves that old cliche about the honest roar of rock 'n' roll." They start at a canter, end at a gallop, get called back for two encores, deserved more.
After a brief wait the lights are turned off, the curtain rises, and the audience in the orchestra stand as one. They don't sit down till the first intermission. On the Trust tour in February, Costello generally began with just piano accompanying a haunting, slowly torturous "Shot By His Own Gun." Not tonight. Tonight we're getting some old stuff, songs from This Year's Model and Armed Forces. At first it feels as though he's rushing them, "The Beat" jumps by, "Accidents Will Happen" rocks hard and falls flat. Is he pandering to his audience? No. He's building up to what it probably had in mind in the first place — a reinterpretation and a rejuvenation of some of his most loved songs. Listening to a disturbing "Watching The Detectives," with the reggae rhythm all but gone and the pace reminiscent of the way he used to do "Alison" on the first Stiff tour, I felt what Costello was attempting was something quite as radical as Dylan did on the Before The Flood tour. Like Dylan he doesn't want us to get too comfortable with his old material, he has to reshape the songs so we can hear them the way we did the first time. This became clearer with "Radio, Radio." I've heard El do this as an indictment of the music business aimed at the people who run the radio and thus the business itself. I've heard it done as a statement of intent. But the last couple of times it's been simply an anthem. Tonight it's a reprimand, a reminder of just how little things have changed, tonight it's heartbreaking.
Just as we're settling down for an evening of disquieting, disturbing but pleasurable modern popular music by the best practitioner working today, Costello introduces John McFee guesting on slide guitar and starts in on "Almost Blue", practically bringing the concert to a halt. The four-eyed boy wonder used to be great with a cover — "Getting Mighty Crowded" anyone? "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself? more recently, "She's Got You," but it simply didn't happen with "Almost Blue", and it wasn't happening on New Year's Eve. Although I enjoyed his fairly straightforward shot at Gram Parson's "I'm Your Toy" (I liked it on the album as well), "Sweet Dreams" is maudlin and sentimental, "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do" is hurried, harried, and not a touch on Hank Williams' original, and as a whole El does earnest but unsatisfying country music. I spent the time wishing he'd slip in "Motel Matches." He doesn't.
A quarter to the hour of the next year, the stage is left to Steve Nieve who plays some light classical arrangements of stuff like Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue." There's no doubting Nieve's immense talent; as part of the best back-up band in the business he's proven it again and again. But I found him a little dull.
And suddenly it's '82, and Costello is doing "(What's So Funny) 'Bout Peace, Love And Understanding," and there's nowhere I'd rather be than here this year. This set we're getting Get Happy, Trust and believe it or not, My Aim Is True. A triple whammy that cuts the first half in half. "Clowntime Is Over" is given the same treatment as on the EP, moody and moving, building and building to "Who's making lovers lane safe again for lovers," "King Horse," "Possession," "Secondary Modern," on he goes deliciously. The lighting is changing from green to purple to blue, to white, to a rainbow of colors. I've seldom seen the Attractions play so well, never seen them play so long. Sometimes it feels as if they're telepathically connected to El 'cause they're always exactly where they should be. Then come six new songs, they all sound great on the first hear, closer to the atmospheric Get Happy than the rowdy Trust.
But time is passing and Costello is on the march to the "big climax." Here they come. "Watch Your Step," "New Lace Sleeves," "Alison" (with everybody singing along), "Miracle Man," "Red Shoes!!!," and POW "Mystery Dance" played with such powerful passion nothing can top it. I'm shouting and singing and dancing. Next day my voice is so hoarse I can hardly speak and I m so high on the concert I didn't think I'd ever come down. Costello proved it all night; I've always known his talent as a songwriter, but I've never seen him give such a fulfilling satisfying totally terrific performance. So this is what being a Long Term Artist is like . . . give me temptation!