Exciting. Effusive. Effective.
Ecological. (Yes, that's right). Elegant. Elvis.
From the moment he walked
onstage for last Wednesday night's
performance at the Universal
Amphitheater in Los Angeles, Elvis Costello was all of the above, and
more. Proving — for the umpteenth
time — that he is one of rock music's most prodigious talents.
Throughout the evenings two-and-a-half hour performance, Costello both amused and amazed the capacity crowd of 6,200 with deft turns at everything from rock ("Uncomplicated") to pop ("Man Out Of Time"), and country ("Lovable") to rootsy, rhythm and blues ("Leave My Kitten Alone").
Costello, accompanied by his recently formed band, the Rude Five, produced a sound that was rich and inviting, packing considerable sonic punch throughout the show, with nary a misplaced note to be heard. The Rude Five, who, in actuality were six (I wonder which one of them is the "polite" one), featured a revolving cast of players, with each musician doing a turn on several different instruments.
For instance, guitarist Mark Ribot would switch to cornet when he got tired of bending the audience's minds (not to mention the neck of his guitar) with spell-binding solos. Bassist Jerry Scheff would shift from electric to upright acoustic bass, and later to trombone. Pete Thomas, drummer for Costello's band The Attractions since the early days, provided a forceful backbeat.
"It's the damage that we do and never know / It's the words that we don't say that scare me so." The line from the opening "Accidents Will Happen" would prove ironic in that many of the show's potential highlights were conspicuous in their absence. Costello chose to ignore much of his mid-'80s work. focusing instead on 1986's pair of releases King of America and Blood and Chocolate, as well as his current offering Spike.
Indeed, it was Spike that benefited most from the live setting, with the more upbeat numbers like "...This Town..." and "Pads, Paws and Claws" packing more of a musical whallop than on record, while the more somber tunes were driven like melodic daggers through the hearts of all those who heard them.
"Tramp the Dirt Down" turned out to be Costello's most vicious attack to date on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a popular target of his over the years. "When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam," he sings, later vowing to live to see the day that he might stand on her grave and "tramp the dirt dawn."
"God's Comic" proved to be the focal point of the show. In it. God is discovered to be in heaven reclining on a waterbed filled with tropical fish while sipping a cola as he stares at a myriad of television screens, each reflecting to Him the goings-on down on the planet Earth. When the singer asks how he feels about the situation, God replies, "I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk and / wondering if I should've given the world to the monkeys." At this time Costello paused for effect before breaking into the refrain ... "But then I saw her face / and now I'm a believer," which then segued Into a chorus from "Last Train To Clarksville," both in reference to the currently fashionable 1960's pop outfit The Monkees.
It was a masterful comic moment by a man who could do no wrong on this evening. Later in the song God makes a point of naming names of those who will definitely be going down to where it's warm rather than up to cool heaven. (Located, according to Costello's monologue preceding the song, at "a place shaped quite like California, only there they have redheads and brunettes, too.") Among those scheduled for a trip to the fire and brimstone are the CIA drug traffickers, Ted Turner, (for colorizing movies made by that "other" Elvis: "You can f--- around with Casablanca, God warns, "but don't you know Elvis is in color all the time?!"), and the president of Exxon Corporation, whom God chastens, "I don't care how f---ing cold it is, get up there and clean that mess you've left!" The audience hung on every word, perhaps realizing they were witnessing one of pop music's true intellectuals — on a very good night.
Of course there were those few people who left during the third encore. Just after the right-on-the-mark reading of "Veronica," Costello's biggest hit to date and one of the few reasons worth listening to pop radio in 1989. But for those who stayed right through the fourth and final encore's hyperactive "Pump It Up," the evening was a complete success.
At the age of 33, and with 13 albums under his belt, not only has Costello staked for himself a considerable reputation as a singer-songwriter, but he is still young enough to have a bright future ahead.
Spike sounds more and more like a masterpiece with each repeated listening. In concert, the songs took upon themselves a newfound power and grace. To label Wednesday's show triumphant would be to barely scratch the surface of the performance.
On this night, there was only one Elvis that really mattered — and not even Ted Turner could have changed that.