Pump it (UP)
The Cat's Whiskers in Streatham (sybaritic South London) is a slick little polychrome dance hall, a debonair little disco with dinner-jacketed white boys to frisk you at the door and waltz you away to the dark ball room. The Cat's Whiskers is the uptown across-the-Atlantic spiritual cousin of Cat's Disco in our own Quincy, Fla. — only here the top-hatted cool-cat murals are picked out in neon. But the crowd — shoulder to shoulder — is like any good club crowd: just want to hear the best.
Elvis Costello, the Attractions, the TKO Horns, and Afrodisiak swoop onto the low-down stage and skate right into "Pills and Soap," that icy mean piece off Punch the Clock. And the crowd — shoulder to shoulder — is hooked, lined, but never sinking as Elvis punches the band into "The Greatest Thing." You dance as best you can, given one square foot of territory.
I'm a Man with a Mission in two or three editions
The TKO Horns let loose and flash out. They are two saxes, a trombone and a trumpet and they hot up the meltdown with their jazz/funk/Motown sound in songs like "Let Them Talk" and "TKO." Then there's Afrodisiak — two women with opulent swollen gospel voices who etch righteous harmonies in "Charm School," "Possession," and "Shipbuilding." They aren't anorexic Marvin Gaye glitter girls slicker than satin. They look (and sound) more like a couple of matrons in the Rev. Isaac Douglas's Glee Club. With the pentecostally switched-on Attractions, the brass and the back-ups give Elvis C. a dark blue-bright gold swell of sound Mr. Marvin Gaye himself would not scorn to stand in front of — a real soul orchestra.
Fashion rumors dispelled. Elvis has not given up his usual horm-rims for trendier glasses. He stands right up on the edge of the stage, looking solemnly still like the cover of My Aim is True — bent knees, angled guitar. He does not smile. He talks only to introduce songs — "this one is called 'Watching the Detectives' " — He is lit in old R and B club-style: red and green spots. None of this diamond-glare, Madison Square Garden, Bruce Springsteen, rock-star stuff.
He winds up and cools down. The set is an emotional yo-yoing. You get "Oliver's Army" — tough and ironic with everyone singing along in the great English Music Hall tradition — then "Alison," bitter and ballady. Shoot high again with "I Can't Stand Up" and calm out with the cruelly-lyrical "Shipbuilding." That is a song for the day, dealing with militarism, capitalism, nationalism with a jewel-embroidered verbal facility and elegant harmony to make you cry.
Don't you know the difference between a lover and a fighter?
"Mystery Dance" is still the most flash-poppingly slash of a song. What a rocking dance number! What a vicious soap opera! Belting it out with wide eyes and clenched teeth, Elvis leans into his mikestand like the old Buddy Holly, sarcastically romancing his electronic help. Elvis rolls and snaps. The bass and drunis are a sharp wall of adrenalin rhythm, Steve Nieve is an acid avalanche on keyboards. Behind them, the TKO Horns lift and shout, Afrodisiak swing and sway — the whole thing is like some marvelous moment of ju-ju magic dancing. And the party miracle washes through you like twin shots of whisky and ice water.
Ashtrays of emotion for the fag-ends of the aristocracy.
The first set ends with "Clown Time is Over" sung into the faces of the audience at full throttle. The TKO Horns, gentlemen-like, let the ladies of Afrodisiak down the spiral stairs first as they hold up their shiny skirts with one hand. Elvis and the Attractions flow out of their instruments and run. The crowd shouts, stomps and claps the usual dismay. They don't seem bursting with uncontrollable dance-tremens but maybe that's because they can barely move their legs. At any rate, the whole glory combo jumps back out with Elvis at the head. They do that old OJays number "Backstabber" and a short, speeding "Stand Down, Margaret." The audience lets that one pass without comment. Could they all be SDP? Tory?
Steve Nieve is too cool for school. He hits those keyboards like they done him wrong but still turn him on. He crashes through the chord towers of "Pump It Up" on second encore in dark glasses, pork pie hat, cig stuck in his mouth at a rigid horizontal. "Pump It Up" is his song — everybody's song.
Diving for pearls
Two hours, two encores. It's a fine thing to see Elvis Costello still has the depth, the height, the reach of soul. He has the keenest, pointiest, literatest musical intelligence going. If you couldn't dance in Streatham, you could think and read the Costello canon in writing on the wall of sound. What better, when Elvis writes the book?