Elvis Costello does not like America. After touring the country last year, he announced that he disliked the United States so much, he was never coming back. Nevertheless, he returned this year for another foray, including a stop at Dillon Gym. A master at the subtle art of alienation, Costello managed to turn off more of his Princeton fans than he pleased; overlooking his poor behavior, however, Costello put on a compelling and intensely interesting show.
For all his talent, Costello's lack of consideration is appalling. First, the sound quality of his set was poor, as was the mix, which muddied the keyboard, guitar and bass lines. The vocals were equally indistinct, which spoiled the performance for those unfamiliar with Costello's lyrics. Second, he turned off all the stage-right speakers during two numbers because the audience on that side of the gym was not standing. Finally Costello's set was pitifully short, lasting slightly more than 50 minutes with no encores.
Perhaps the most irksome aspect of the concert was that Costello seemed to have decided beforehand that Princeton did not merit his best efforts. When not singing, his most characteristic facial expression was one of indifference, although he did throw in a few sneers for good measure.
Thus, fueled by some inner antagonism, Costello did not entertain his audience, he assaulted it. Leading the attack in most cases were Costello's vocals, which dripped with anything from bitter frustration to pure hatred. He electrified with spasms of intense emotion, as in the choruses of "Two Little Hitlers," and he menanced with hissing venom, as in "Lipstick Vogue." From time to time Costello's guitar playing contributed to the attack, as in the clanging, hypnotic solo in "Chelsea" and the defiant posturing of "The. Beat." Finally, special lighting effects were added to magnify Costello's presence, making him appear demonic and alien.
The concert's best moments were concentrated in the final third of Costello's set. Early in the program, Costello seemed reluctant to exert himself, but the show gained momentum as Costello grew energetic, the band more vigorous and the sound less muddy. The turning point came when the band pounded out an arresting version of "Accidents Will Happen," ending with an overwhelming wall of sound. The stage grew dark for the next number, "Lipstick Vogue," with bright, white spotlights shining out from behind the drummer and a single red lamp focused on Costello. A sinister "Watching the Detectives" followed, presenting Costello at his most dangerous. The chorus was particularly spellbinding, and Costello's fiery vocals whipped the crowd into a frenzy. "Big Boys" featured perhaps the most exciting moment of the evening, an amazing display of punk-inspired gyrations by Costello. The show closed with "Radio Radio," a pounding, vituperative rocker. The hostility of his number accurately reflected the tenor of the evening, and the hostility that fuels Costello's creative energies.
The evening's opening act, the Rubinoos, had little in common with Costello and the Attractions. Four clean-cut, all-American boys from Berkeley, their music featured tight three-and four-part vocal harmonies, good rhythms, and fine guitar work. Beneath this wholesome exterior, however, lurked a biting sense of humor. The Rubinoos devoted their set to making fun of themselves, the music they played, and their Princeton audience, a strategy which, in contract to Costello's behavior, proved pleasantly entertaining.
Clearly, Elvis Costello is not a nice guy. To really appreciate his Dillon Gym performance, the audience had to ignore Costello's personal side and concentrate solely upon his music. Many Princetonians were unable to do this, however, which is surprising for an Ivy League institution. After all, students here must have learned by now that gifted people are not always easy to live with.