The five-hour drive from Atlanta to the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville takes almost twice that in a torrential downpour. The clouds dragging across the sullen grey hills looked like soggy chicken feathers and waterfalls gushed forth over the crags of Lookout Mountain from every impossible direction like a Roger Dean painting for a Yes album cover.
The windshield wipers slapped wildly through the gallons of water flowing across the windshield, keeping a manic beat like a Devo drum track. Tires sloshed through the inches of water that turned the highway into a shallow river. Spray from trucks and sheets of rain made visibility less than zero.
People do crazy things on a pilgrimage to Tennessee to see Elvis. Several GSU students risked their lives Sunday, Jan. 3, to make the insane drive through such heavy weather to see one of the greatest legends in rock.
But this legend is still living. He was to be in the States for just one more night on a three-date mini-tour that took in New York, L.A. and Nashville.
Nashville was the place where this Elvis was to show off his latest metamorphosis, from rock to rockabilly and all the way to twangy gah dayum pedal steel country.
This Elvis was christened Declan McManus in England in 1955. He sings a plaintive melody about Alison, not Priscilla. He is not Eyetalian, has never performed hip thrusts behind his guitar on the Ed Sullivan show that cause the networks to censor everything going on below the waist, has clipped his sideburns right at the ear instead of wearing them like bristly black spears across his jowls, and in black glasses, Elvis Costello looks like the reincarnation of Buddy Holly.
Elvis Costello decided to play at Opryland perhaps as a statement about his newfound love for the heartbreak of the country blues. He performed a melange of some of the most divorce- and alcohol-ridden tunes that a repertoire of George Jones and Hank and Merle Haggard and company would allow.
Though Elvis did choose Nashville's Opryland, which is a campy and curious mixture of Six Flags and Hee Haw, there was not a single cowboy hat in attendance Sunday night. There were a few Western style shirts worn sincerely, but every string tie and pair of pointy-toed booth were worn as afterthoughts in Nu-wave getups.
The crowd was so uncountry and, in contrast, exotic, that a few lines of description seem necessary. The eclectic mode of dress was flashy to trashy and illuminated an already colorful evening. There were a few navy blazers, Bass Weejuns and buttondown shirts in the new Opry house. And there were navy blue suits galore. However, the navy blazer, Weejuns and buttondown were never all together on the same person. One enchanted concertgoer wore a bit of makeup and a dog collar around his neck to complement his navy blazer. The Bass weejuns were the bottom of a human exclamation point; that is, they were on the feet of the lanky and angular crew-cut sax player and front man for the innovative Atlanta band the incredible Throbs. Buttondown shirts were usually frayed and shredded and spangled with concert buttons. The audience seemed to thumb its collective nose at the preppie look, and the few Izod and add-a-bead wearers seemed adrift in a multicolored sea of leather, feathers, baggy and flimsy or spandex or leopard motif. The navy blue suit was faithfully worn with the sleeves pushed up and the skinny tie loosened and the baggy pants too long, usually atop sneakers. The true believers, of course, wore hi-top basketball sneaks or low-slung dancing shoes with their suits. These shoes had to be red, or the wearer lost important points as an Elvis '80s fashion plate.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions walked onstage as soon as the house lights dimmed, with a minimum of fanfare (unlike this article) and launched into "Accidents Will Happen." The "one-word-test" winning word for Costello onstage is IMMEDIATE. One song jumped right into the next one like a flurry of punches or a sentence with no punctuation. The audience must have forgotten to breathe, or Elvis wouldn't let them come up for air, or both. His attack was varied, with a maximum of contrast between songs, and if anybody really did forget to breathe, he took an intermission, which gave both the band a chance to change into different outfits and the crowd to admire the variety of each other's plumage in the lobby of the Opry house.
The acoustics in the hall are even better than Atlanta's fabulous Fox. And the building itself is immaculate, though I had somehow hoped for an architectural oddity with columns of alabaster, stained glass, and gingerbread around the gables and live oaks draped in Spanish moss on the grounds.
Perhaps Elvis became such a manic performer and prolific songwriter to show to his grammar chums that he was not a nerd. And if the speed limit for thinking was 55, the Thought Police would constantly be chasing the man in vain to give him a citation for speeding. His first album, My Aim Is True, came out right around when Elvis Presley died, and Costello's new moniker seemed like some sort of cruel joke. Though Elvis may have committed his fair share of faux pas socially, the change of name was sensible, although ironically timely But I wager that Declan McManus would have become as outlandish a household name as would have Reginald Dwight, had the latter artist not changed his name to Elton John.
Elvis, wearing a skinny colorful cravat pinned tightly underneath his buttoned square shouldered suit jacket, looks like the English professor gone bonkers. A bow tie would have created an even more ludicrous image: "this geek plays guitar?" It may seem redundant, but Costello has only been on the scene for three or so years and is one of the most active rock songwriters around. Each of his seven albums is filled almost to bursting with about ten cuts per side. If the comparison to an English prof seems to have gone on a tangent, one could consider Costello the Michener of the Nu-wave world.
Costello plays more styles than the proverbial Carter's has liver pills. He could be the big-band leader a la Tommy Dorsey, fronting fifteen other bespectacled players seated behind their monogrammed stands. The sound of the Attractions is tight and spare and yet somehow very big. Though they are but a keyboard player, a drummer. a bass guitarist with Elvis doing guitars and vocal. the horn section and fifty-piece orchestra and black female backup vocalists are 'understood " and maybe they were behind a curtain or in the wings the whole time. I was so mesmerized by the richness and varieties of texture that I didn't think to sneak a peek backstage.
Costello did all the vocals. All of 'em, and he never seemed to hit a note right on the head. He sang all the way around it, teasing it with vibrato or whispering it huskily into the mike—the only mike onstage. He never really lapsed into the "talk-singing" that so many vocalists with great instrumental agility but little vocal promise seem to be plagued with.
The band was tight, but never uptight. The drummer played his skins within the radius defined by the distance from his elbows to his drumsticks. There were no dazzling arrays of cymbals spread in a six-foot circle in front of him like the late Keith Moon was partial to, nor a gong behind him like Carl Palmer. In a word, these guys were rarely show-offs — they didn't have to be. Most of their antics were directed toward their instrument and they let the audience fend for themselves. Maybe Elvis was not in the mood to impress anyone but himself.
Each tune was handled differently; some faithful to their album version, such as "New Lace Sleeves" from Trust, and others were dramatically different, such as "Watching the Detectives," which was played a bit faster, enhancing the delicious reggae flavor. "Radio Radio" is an upbeat, almost manic tune, yet Elvis did not flay at his guitar like Pete Townshend, but riffed it in an almost comical miniature windmill fashion. The keyboard player occasionally strayed from his solid yet airy ivory ticklings to kick his feet behind him into the air with a flourish Elvis occasionally postured like Chuck Berry, but all four players soon snapped back into their professional attitudes, as if embellishment or flashy instrumental work were out of character.
The band crammed more songs into that country set than any late-night "operators-are-waiting-call-now!" greatest hits record and tape deal could have rolled up the TV screen past your red eyes at 3 a.m. When he sang Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," it could have been after the square dance in Amarillo. "Yakety Yak" would have made Sha Na Na go back to hot-wiring cars.
The show was not merely a rich blend of musical styles; it was a bona fide anthology of rock music from Howlin' Wolf right through the fifties and the first Elvis to rockabilly and, of course, Nu-Wave.
Though part of the first set was country and western, it was truly amazing that no real cowboys showed up. If they did, they were well disguised in wraparound glasses and nasty T-shirts with dates that left their red ribbons and cans of Skoal at home and arrived at the Opry dressed as B-52's lookalikes.
For the second set, Elvis was decked out in a black zoot suit, bow tie, and red shoes, thank goodness. Though all the angels would truly have wanted to wear 'em, he let a few of them down—he didn't play that tune But it would have been an opryhouse full of hypnotized multicolored folks to this day if he'd played them all. He gave the rock gluttons one past the customary two encores, and he did play "Alison." It would have made Linda Ronstadt get fat and break out all over again.
The long drive back through the gap to Georgia seemed to pass much more quickly after such a rewarding show; though there were purple rumbles in the distance, the road was dry. I was so exhilarated that I didn't try to hit any of the possums that ambled across the road in front of my headlights.
All I can say is, if that concert is crammed onto a four record live album, buy it. Rent out the fabulous Fox and set up your stereo and set up all the speakers you can borrow. Invite everyone you know and make sure they invite everyone they know to the Fox Theatre one night this summer and make sure they bring a case of longneck beers and make sure they leave the doors open so everyone in the street can hear. Hope they made a video of it so they can show it on the big screen. Hire out the Fox organist to pretend he's playing pedal steel on the country tunes and teach him to play '50s Hammond for the rest.
Declan McManus had the right idea when he chose to be Elvis. The King is not dead, and he's getting better all the time Elvis Costello is truly a "Miracle Man."