No one escapes the magnetism of modern moods. Not even Elvis Costello. Several weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio, the English new-wave musician shot epithets at Stephen Stills' band and prompted a well-publicized barroom brawl. But last Saturday in Upper Darby, Pa., Costello flashed smiles at a sold-out Tower Theater audience and raced through 70 memorable minutes of exuberant, important rock.
There have been times when Costello has cursed at quiet concert crowds. There have been times when he has burst into temper tantrums and stalked off stages after 40-minute sets. Watching the singer-guitarist dart amiably in front of the Tower fans, I applauded his decision to forget the bad shows and bad press and cheered his determination to show us Americans that he is a true rocker. Whether or not Costello can maintain that strength will be seen this Friday, when he and his band, The Attractions, bring their "Armed Funk Tour" to Princeton University's Dillon Gym for yet another sold-out performance.
Dressed in a loose silver suit to match his silver guitar. Costello fired off 18 songs for the ecstatic Tower audience. Much of the material was taken from the new Armed Forces album, including dramatic renditions of "Goon Squad," "Oliver's Army," and "Green Shirt."
"Accidents Will Happen," another cut from Armed Forces, was introduced as the band's new single and dedicated to Pennsylvania's own newsworthy accident at Three Mile Island. The allusion to the nuclear mishap was appropriate, indeed; illuminated grotesquely by red and green lights, Costello often resembled a vengeful mutant. His frightening guitar work during "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and The Attractions' churning bedrock underneath "Lipstick Vogue" provided the excellent soundtrack.
Two numbers from My Aim Is True, Costello's first album, sounded marvelously sharp and tight. An especially emotional version of "Alison" preceded a pulsating, seven-minute extension of "Watching the Detectives," during which Costello unstrapped his guitar, confronted the audience like a new-wave Mick Jagger, and momentarily reclined on the stage floor. "This is my concert," he seemed to smirk. "We play by my rules."
The stunning Attractions — keyboardist Steve Naive, bassist Bruce Thomas, and drummer Pete Thomas — played explosively during the final three songs, all from Costello's second album, This Year's Model. After the climactic "You Belong to Me," the band presented "Radio, Radio" and "Pump It Up" as the definitive encores. By that time, the Tower crowd was convinced: Elvis and Co. had revitalized rock with an urgent, intelligent roll.
The Rubinoos, who also will be at Dillon Gym this Friday, opened the Tower show with a bouncy set of clean, sixties pop. Offering a soft, cheerful contrast to the hard, satiric music of Costello, the California quartet mixed clever originals ("I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend") with inspired covers ("I Think We're Alone Now," "Please Please Me"). The band's unquestionable talents — especially those of the hot lead guitarist — soon met with encouraging approval from the originally hostile audience.