Elvis is to college students of the 1980s what Frank Sinatra is to septuagenarians. Almost everybody young and educated — from disaffected punkers to cravated junior businessmen — likes Elvis, and almost anyone connected with Harvard who could scrounge a ticket went to see his solo show at Bright. Elvis may be kidding when he refers to himself as the "King of America," but it is certainly no joke to say that he is the "King of Academia."
The unenviable task of critiquing a talent-laden but inconsistent show falls to me, a lowly typewriter hack. Some parts of the monarch's performance were very good, especially when he steered clear of his past hits and focused on his recent or lesser-heard material. Watching Costello churn out perfunctory versions of "Alison" and "Every Day I Write the Book," however, gave me the distinct impression that, for all his barbed wit and rebel posturing, Costello is not above pandering to a hit-hungry crowd.
A longtime producer and drinking buddy of Costello, Nick Lowe opened the show with a short but spirited set of smooth pop. Lowe has neither the vocal talent nor the songwriting ingenuity of Costello, but his straight forward approach provided nice variety in the show. The best tune in his set was "The Rose of England," a somber and folky piece delivered without any of the irony that characterized Lowe's early work. With his cuffed jeans, loafers, and Everly-Brothers-inspired vocals, Lowe took the crowd on a pleasant ride back to the future, to the innocence and simplicity of '50s rock and roll.
The first part of Costello's show was anything but innocent and simple. This section was a true fan's delight, focusing on bitter songs from King Of America and lesser known chestnuts from such overlooked albums as Taking Liberties and Get Happy. More animated than at previous concerts on his college tour, Costello virtually spat out the words to "Brilliant Mistake" and "Suit of Lights," two songs from America which deal with the ups and downs of his career. These songs gave the audience a glimpse behind his pop chameleon posturing. The pain on his face was genuine when he sang "I was a fine idea at the time. Now I'm a brilliant mistake."
Avoiding his hits, Costello made few mistakes indeed. The show was highlighted by some well-chosen medleys, combining Costello originals and covers, with the latter enhancing and illuminating the former. The attachment of "Not Face Away" to "Uncomplicated" revealed Costello as a latter-day Buddy Holly who goes to meet Peggy Sue with lexicon in hand. His interpretation of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" gave an easy swing to its companion, "Radio Sweetheart." And the way that the Beatles' "Hide Your Love Away" flowed out of "New Amsterdam" clearly displayed the desperation that inspired the Costello original. It was not ol' Blue Eyes, but ol' Blue Balls.
Other unusual delights kept cropping up. "Any King's Shilling," a new ballad about his grandfather going to war, and "Sleep Of the Just" came across as powerful Richard Thompson-style folk tunes. His reworking of "Inch by Inch" from the personal low LP Goodbye Cruel World redeemed that song from its over-produced vinyl version. And his rendition of "Heathen Town," a b-side of the "Every Day I Write the Book" single was tremendous.
What was not tremendous was the show biz gimmickry, from stupid patter about Jim and Tammy Bakker to the vastly overrated spinning song wheel. This business detracted from the music itself — and for no apparent purpose. It is strange that someone like Costello, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest lyricists in music, resorts to pat jokes about the Beastie Boys, CNN News and Oliver North. It's almost as if he wants to start a second career as Jay Leno.
Leno would probably love the spinning song wheel, a towering and hokey trick that exercises an unhealthy fascination with Elvis. I've seen the damn thing three times now, and it's never been effective. It does provide a certain comic amusement for the first three minutes, but after that it bogs down the show as people have to be selected out of the audience to spin.
Part of the problem is that almost everybody picked wants to hear "Alison" and "Pump It Up," and Costello fixes the wheel to their tastes, destroying whatever suspense might arise from a truly random selection. True to form, the wheel at Bright yielded uninspired versions of Costello "classics" — a lot of dead time with no music and almost no surprises.
The problem seems to be that Costello wishes to be regarded as the voice of a generation in the way that Sinatra is, but he can't resist making a silly joke out of the whole process. As the beginning of his concert proved, Costello does not need the usual rock and roll trickery to be effective. He comes across most powerfully as a serious singer-songwriter with an arresting voice and a seemingly bottomless well of creative ideas. As his fans, we should demand that our voice come without all the Vegas bullshit.