It is hard to determine which was stranger at the Cleveland Agora Tuesday night — the crowd or the two acts they had come to see perform.
On the slate were the Rubinoos, a California quartet which performs mostly copy material in the form of oldies, and Elvis Costello, an ugly Buddy Holly look-alike who is British and quite conceited.
The sold-out crowd was composed of at least one person from every possible society, class and ethnic/racial group in life. You saw the chic, 1970s glitter people, the outdated, grubby 1960s hippies, the half-conscious dopers, the "normal" concert-goers.
What was performing on stage was just as varied. Beginning the evening were the Rubinoos, who opened their portion of the concert with "A song for all you people in Cleveland." More than a few people had to think hard about the connection when the band played "Tonight" by Clevelander Eric Carmen.
After getting a mild response from that, the quartet swung into their latest single, "Hold Me," a light, pleasant tune very much in the 1960s easy rock genre.
The audience woke up considerably when the group began the Beatles' early hit, "Please Please Me," and cheered the Rubinoos on through "Walk Don't Run," "I Think We're Alone Now" and their original, "Rock and Roll Is Dead (And We Don't Care)."
According to guitarist/writer Tommy Dunbar, the latter number was written in reference to today's music. "There's almost no fun in modern rock and roll anymore. Everyone is so serious and adult." His band's goal, he added, is to "have fun. We're trying to dispel the rumor that rock and roll is serious business."
Perhaps that is what the quartet was trying to convey to the audience when they returned on stage for their encore. Dunbar announced, "We played this song all over California and always got booed off stage. I hope you people will like it."
"Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies?? Yep, that's what they played. And yep, the Agora crowd booed and booed, but didn't get rid of the band until they were finished with the song.
That type of entertainment should have prepared me somewhat for Costello, but it didn't. First of all, my camera was banned from the Agora, "at the request of the artist," a bouncer informed me. Okay. No pictures.
I worked my way through the crowd to the stage door, seeing if I could wangle a seat on the floor near the stage. I was informed by a stage crew member that Costello "hated the press" and might do something unsavory to me if he saw me taking notes.
Hates the press? Apparently the man doesn't think the press influences the public at all. He also probably doesn't think the public has anything to do with his success or failure.
I found a seat in the far corner of the Agora and tried to watch the show with an open mind. That was hard to do, because due to my poor location, I couldn't "watch" the show. I tried listening. This too was difficult because although Costello's music is, for the most part, enjoyable, quality rock and roll, it is almost impassible to distinguish the lyrics unless one is a true Costello fan and has memorized the artist's albums.
Despite all this, I stayed. Backed by the Attractions, his three-piece band, Costello opened with "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," a cut from his latest album, Armed Forces.
The Attractions proved to be a most talented, capable trio of musicians. Costello, who plays guitar in addition to providing vocals, seemed to lack the talent his musicians possess. After playing for nearly half an hour, Costello finally spoke to his adoring, wild audience, and announced "Alison," his first U.S. hit.
This of course, brought the house to its feet in one big sweep. If Costello was pleased with the response, no one knew it, for he never bothered to even say "Thank you" after each thunderous round of appreciation.
I did find some noteworthy and commendable aspects of Costello's hour-long performance. Only two songs exceeded four minutes in length: both were good enough to warrant it. Costello and the Attractions never once presented the long and boring guitar, drum and/or screaming vocal solos many other bands are so fond of. There also was no tuning of instruments, chatting among band members or other annoying performance interruptions.
Costello is known for ignoring an audience's requests for an encore. It seemed he would uphold his tradition Monday night because as soon as the quartet exited the stage, the house lights came on and taped music began booming from the amplifiers.
Although many people stayed to scream and clap, just as many headed for the door. After nearly five minutes of waiting, however, Costello and the Attractions returned to do "Mystery Dance." I wonder if breaking his tradition will help cure him of his "hatred" of the press. If he gives in to one facet of the public, he just might begin giving into the other.