Last Friday night Elvis Costello, a leading figure in the British new-wave rock movement, performed before a capacity crowd at Dillon Gymnasium in Princeton. To this taste, Mr. Costello's performance seemed uninspired and was certainly below the lofty standards set by his recorded material. More disturbing, however, was the antagonism present between Mr. Costello and his audience.
The problems originated with the concert halt itself. Frankly, Dillon Gym is an awful place for a concert. If one's seats are located directly on the basketball court (and a good deal of them are), it becomes nearly impossible to see over those in front of you, particularly when they are standing, as was the case throughout most of the performance. To compound the deficiencies, the Dillon stage is set relatively low to the ground. Consequently, many spectators left their seats and crowded too close to the stage to get a better look at Costello. In light of this, Costello asked if there were "any f-----g gentlemen in the audience to let the ladies see." At one point he spoke of a "secret weapon" and had his roadies turn off the sound system to a certain portion of the audience. When this part of the crowd sat down during the following song, Costello sarcastically gave them "three guesses" as to why they were sitting and the rest of the audience standing. When the sound system was turned on again, the crowd reassumed its standing position.
Why Costello insisted on fooling around with the sound system (which, incidentally, was not very clear, even when turned on) and contradicted himself — I am still not sure if he wanted the audience to stand or sit — is a mystery. Perhaps he wished to reinforce his reputation of having a diabolical nature. Costello does in fact resemble a devilish figure, particularly when bathed in red light, as he was for a large part of the evening.
For the most part, the music was adequate but unspectacular. In accompanying Costello's electric guitar, the Attractions, the backup band on the last two LP's, were solid, especially the bass player, referred to only as "Bruce" on the albums. In the 55 minute set, fifteen songs were played, five of which do not appear on any of Costello's American released albums (one of them, "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" is on the import version of This Year's Model). After one of those songs, to which the audience politely applauded, Costello remarked, in an exceedingly sarcastic tone, "You're too kind" with an over emphasis of the "too." Most of the rest of the songs were from his latest album, Armed Forces, but the most effective tunes, "Watching the Detectives" and "Lipstick Vogue" appeared on My Aim is True and on This Year's Model. Costello's last song, "Radio Radio," which criticizes the medium, was "dedicated to all the a------s in radio and to all the a------s who listen to it." This is most ironic, since the success that Costello has enjoyed (Armed Forces is currently ninth in the charts) is due largely to radio airplay.
The lack of enthusiasm in Costello's manner was self-evident. Only for a short time did he take his familiar intense, knock-kneed stance; instead he casually tapped his left heel to the rhythm of music. In this writer's opinion, this relaxed manner detracts from Costello's on stage performance; many of his numbers deal with tension in personal relationships and the artist's political opinions.
Another fault of the concert that many spectators found was its relatively short length and the absence of an encore. However, 55 minutes has been the average duration of most of Costello's concerts on his current tour and the missing encore, which is almost compulsory in rock these days, has also been common. To his credit, Costello plays encores only when he is at his best. To say the least, Elvis Costello was hardly at his best last Friday.