It was intermission at the Jai-Alai Fronton last Saturday. Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille had finished their sets, so while the roadies furiously were setting up the stage for Elvis Costello, tape recorded music blared over the public address system.
It gave one time to let his mind wander and wonder what could be expected from the 23-year old English “new wave” rock artist. It was only last year that his debut album My Aim Is True hit our shores, and he had recently released a second This Year’s Model.
Costello resembles a "before" picture of a Charles Atlas ad. But a quick listen to either album draws a picture more illuminating, more graphic and more explicit than any photograph could ever be.
And the songs fly off the turntable with a frenetic urgency – literate putdowns of fashion and women, of frustrations and sex and of his own doubts about inadequacy. All are a mixture of cynical wit combined with the best rock rhythms of the 60’s.
This is Costello’s record image, but he could seize and expand upon it in person?
The road crew finished and Costello and his three piece backup band, The Attractions, took the stage. On the sparse, uncluttered platform, the scene was reminiscent of those early days of music.
Costello went to centre stage with his Fender rhythm guitar, with Bruce Thomas laying down the bass lines, keyboardist Steve Nieve supplying the bright undertones and drummer Pete Thomas holding the group together.
Elvis walked up to the microphone, violently grabbed it, turned to the members of the band, shook his hand and the music started with "Mystery Dance." When the song ended, Costello didn’t say a word.
The band moved into "Pump It Up," and Costello was strumming and jumping frantically around the stage, creating an image of incredible contrast. The singer who resembled a bookworm had the crowd in a frenzy.
The next three songs "You Belong To Me," "Less Than Zero" and "Red Shoes," all showed the same breakneck speed. Costello hadn’t yet said a word, and the songs followed one after the other as though they were being played from an album.
The only emotion the singer showed were his leering glances at photographers who snapped pictures at every movement he made, from wiping his forehead to loosening his shirt.
Finally Costello spoke. "This is for all you girls" he said with an exaggerated contempt. The band broke into "This Year’s Girl." He plowed on song after song, continuing his pattern of not talking between tunes.
Before the last song of the night, Costello looked out over the audience and spoke to them for the last time. "You’d better tell your friends about us" he screamed. "the next time we come back here, we want this place filled."
Most of the audience was silent, not knowing whether they’d been assaulted or insulted. To Costello, the challenge is a private joke.
Then, the band started "Radio Radio," which lambasts the music industry and the whole Top 40 group thinking process.
After playing 14 songs in about 50 minutes, the group left the stage. The lights stayed dim as the crowd caught it’s breath after witnessing an extraordinary performance by the man many reviewers are calling one of the most gifted rockers of the 70’s. They vainly screamed for an encore, but there was none.
Costello had already left the building.