The most entertaining riffs of this whole wobbly evening at the Bottom Line were the massed jeers of "'Whipping Post'!" and "Eat shit, assholes!" that were elicited by the opening act, Tuff Darts. Seldom has such scathing derision been so richly deserved.
The Darts may have given their all when they gave up Robert Gordon. Their new lead singer, an insufferably snotty young lout with predictably slicked-back hair and rent-a-punk wardrobe, is the most offensive clown to clutter up a stage since Screaming Lord Sutch. (Although guitarist Jeff Salen has his eye on the title too.) The group's playing was limp and raggedy throughout, and the effrontery of their tin-piped vocalist attempting such Gordon-era faves as "All for the Love of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Slash" boosted the ambient abuse level to near fever pitch. Any threat of an encore would have precipitated outright violence, and the Darts wisely deferred to the unmistakable wishes of the ugly, hooting mob they'd created.
At this point the sold-out house — already heavily papered with rock writers, record execs and other hard-nosed hangers-out — would have been a fit audience for a public baby-burning. Bad news for Elvis Costello, who, in a phrase, has not got it together.
A sometimes striking songwriter with a fresh, direct, melodic style, Costello is hampered onstage by his wooden indecisiveness — should he go all the way with the pop-eyed post-geek persona he's been saddled with, or should he instead give vent to his own obviously disturbed personality? Outside of an occasional splay-footed lurch and a curious robot moue that never leaves his lips, he ain't much to watch. And he's further encumbered by a four-piece backup band that must've been tossed together on the plane trip over here. (It requires a really web-footed ineptitude to trample the beat on as precise and straight-forward a rocker as "Mystery Dance," one of the strongest cuts on Costello's My Aim Is True album, but these bozos turned it into a cymbal-crashing stampede worthy of the Surfaris.)
As for Elvis's own instrumental talents, well, they're not likely to rouse Mick Taylor out of a good nod. He blew the simple but haunting bass-string lead on "Watching The Detectives," and reverted to choked, unchanging rhythm chops on virtually every other song. Along with a whole new band, he also needs a second guitarist, which might enable him to add the kind of short, tasty fills that brighten up his album so effectively.
Costello is an odd duck for sure (more! more!), and he just might turn out to be a whole new kind of hot-shot songwriter. But throwing him into an American tour at this embryonic stage of his development was a punishment beyond cruel and unusual — especially that embarrassing Saturday Night Live guest shot a few nights later where he pissed everybody off by suddenly breaking into "Radio, Radio," a new anti-media song right in the middle of his more acceptable (in this country, at least!) "Less Than Zero." It's been a gruelling initiation, but I for one am not writing the boy off. With a little time, he could become punk's perverse answer to Leo Sayer, or something equally unimaginable.