BERKELEY, Calif. — Hold everything! What's Elvis Costello trying to do — sabotage his career?
It seemed foolhardy enough two years ago when he (nee Declan McManus) adopted the sacred Presley first name, a move that could have caused rock audiences to dismiss him as a kook or opportunist.
But Costello has cleared that hurdle.
Already hailed by critics, he is making strong commercial inroads. Even without the helpful exposure of an AM hit yet, his new Armed Forces album is in the national Top 20. His current tour is also doing turnaway business.
Costello, a 24-year-old Englishman who looks like a rock equivalent of Woody Allen, mixes the energy of the British new wave with the biting lyrics and commanding viewpoint associated with Bob Dylan and John Lennon. It's a bold, captivating approach.
But even the most adventurous forces in rock normally hedge their bets once mass acceptance seems within their reach. So, the predictable thing for Costello to do on this, his "breakthrough" tour would have been to ease up a bit.
The joy of his recent concert at the sold-out, 3,500-seat Berkeley Community Center was that Costello did the opposite. He showed even more independence. The result was the most stirring rock performance I've seen since last year's Bruce Springsteen triumphs.
Walking on stage without the usual rock star fanfare ("Ladies and gentlemen.. direct from England... rock's hottest new act..."), Costello showed he wasn't even afraid to push the old Elvis association further than his use of the name.
His wardrobe could have been lifted from Presley's Graceland closet two decades ago: a silver lame jacket (Presley wore a gold lame suit in his most famous publicity photo) and baggy, black checkered pants.
Costello's perkiness, however, wasn't limited to his clothes.
Rock audiences usually respond best to familiar material, so even the most confident acts normally avoid using more than two or three tunes from their latest album. And, they always find room for their signature tunes.
In Costello's case, the latter would include "Radio, Radio," his anthemish attack on conservative AM programming tendencies; "Alison," the beautifully designed ballad that Linda Ronstadt included on her latest album, and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding," the track that Columbia Records is eyeing as Costello's next single.
But he didn't do any of them. In fact, he only included six songs from his first two albums in the 19-song, 65-minute set. Nine songs were from Armed Forces, and four others haven't appeared on any of Costello's U.S. albums.
So, how much did this daring bit of song selection cost Costello in crowd response?
Though his pulsating, virtual non-stop stage approach works against prolonged applause, Costello's marvelously paced set drew five standing ovations.
And there was one other surprise wrinkle:
When rock acts leave the stage, the auditorium house lights are kept off, thereby informing the audience of the intent to return for an encore.
Costello, however, apparently instructed the stage crew to turn on the house lights when he left the stage. That gave the audience a convenient out if it didn't want more. The cheering continued, and Costello came back. But some nights, I'm sure, he will choose not to.
The lesson is obvious: Costello isn't going to play by the rules. And that's good.
Part of the problem with rock in the late '70s is that the rules have become worn out. Bands have learned that the surest way to success is smooth out the adventurous edges. You put together the show most likely to appeal to the widest number of fans and repeat it — note for note — in every city on a tour. The result is a loss of spontaneity and adventure. Everyone aims for a common denominator. We're left with a mostly mediocre and routine product.
That's what the new wave movement has challenged. Costello injects a freshness that makes each night an adventure rather than a replay.
He's not a flashy performer by traditional rock terms. He stands rather stiffly at the microphone for most of the show, breaking only for a few pigeon-toed stomps. But the lighting effects are outstanding. Framing Costello in eerie red and green shadows, the lighting adds to the urgency and tension in his music.
His Attractions band — Steve Naive on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums and Bruce Thomas on bass — provides a steady, dramatic backdrop for Costello's songs, most of which deal with intensely combative relationships (romantic and otherwise).
Despite a fairly consistent energy level, Costello's music varies greatly in emotional tone. It ranges from sarcasm ("Your mouth is made up / But your mind is undone") to compassion: "It's the damage that we do and never know / It's the things we don't say that scare me so."
The lyrics — which also in corporate humor, anger and social comment — are sung with snarling, exclamation point determination. In their purest form, most deal with mind-to-mind combat: "Two Little Hitlers" — a song title — fighting it out for the "other one's will."
Unlike Springsteen whose concerts are a joyous celebration of having overcome emotional struggle, Costello touches more closely on the anguish of those struggles.