Breaking with the Triangle's tendency to write music reviews almost exclusively about this hardcore punk band you've never heard of but-oh-my-freaking-god-they're-freaking-fantastic, I'm here to talk to you about an Elvis Costello concert I attended at the Electric Factory on May 19.
Costello was in town with his band the Imposters (basically 2/3 of his previous band, the Attractions), presumably touring behind a greatest hits package recently released by Universal Records. It was the last night of a short ten-city U.S. tour, sponsored by Visa. It doesn't warm my heart to see one of my musical heroes subsidized by a credit card company, but I'm not going to go all on hipster on you and rail against corporate sponsorship. Costello may be a big name, but he's got a cult audience. I'm just glad he came to Philadelphia and played the Factory, as his last few trips this way were expensive casino gigs in Jersey.
In a lot of ways, it was the most pleasant concert I've ever attended. My previous concert experiences were all pretty homogeneous: being banged around in mosh pits instigated by big, sweaty guys with drooping mohawks, wannabe punk sixteen-year-old girls fighting tooth and nail to get to the front of the crowd and the band's singing drowned out by a chorus of off-key fans intent to prove they know every word of every song. It was refreshing to attend a show with a crowd both young and middle-aged (Costello did hit the stage in '77, after all) where everyone was content to stand in place, gently sway, and at most, mouth the lyrics. Except for this one guy behind me. Man, I wanted to punch him. Baby-boomers ain't got no reason to skank.
With 20 plus albums under his belt, it'd be difficult for even a big fan to know every song in the set list. I must confess that I was only able to identify about 60 percent of them. Fortunately, in addition to being an ace songwriter, Costello is a master showman, which made it easy to enjoy the songs I wasn't well acquainted with. The guy can elicit a chuckle from the crowd with simple a heightening of an eyebrow. He did whip out a fair number of his signature tunes, such as "Pump It Up," "Radio Radio," "Watching the Detectives," and, of course, "Alison." Seeing him perform that particular song alone onstage with just an acoustic guitar was worth the price of admission (not really, but I had to get that review cliché out of the way). Personal favorites like "No Action," "Everyday I Write the Book," and "45" didn't make the cut, but there's always next time. As long as it's not one of those damned casino gigs.
He opened the show with "Welcome to the Working Week," which was quite fitting, as it's the first song from his first album. One of the song's lyrics, "Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired," has to be the best euphemisms for masturbation I've ever heard. Love that song. Another highlight was the performance of "I Want You," a slow-burning rocker that builds to a chilling crescendo. It's perhaps the most bitter song in his huge catalogue, which says something considering he's a man known for his bitter song writing.
Halfway through, he was joined onstage by R&B legend Allen Touissant. The two recently collaborated on an album Rivers in Reverse which had something to do with Hurricane Katrina, but I forget what. I'm guessing there was a collective mental groan in the audience when Touissant took the stage. This crowd didn't want to hear any of his wacky collaboration material; just the key tracks from his late 70's and/or early 80's new wave albums. That's the challenge of being a veteran performer: balancing your new less-popular work while satisfying an audience that demands the greatest hits even though you're sick of playing songs you wrote thirty years ago. Oh, well. At least such performers can find solace by swimming through their big piles of money, Scrooge McDuck-style. I was among the eye-rollers in the crowd, but I'll admit Costello did a satisfactory job of combining the concert staples with the new stuff from his pet projects.
The show ended with a spirited rendition of the Nick Lowe-penned "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)," which he expanded to include his sentiments about the Iraq War (bring the boys home, bring them back alive!). Such proclamations come standard with rock concerts these days, but it was a tasteful and tuneful way of doing it. Certainly more creative than the raised middle finger and "Fuck Bush" chant you get at most Warped Tour performances. All told, I probably would have been happy with any set list Costello presented because he's a favorite of mine I've never seen before as well as a music legend still in his prime. Well done, Visa.