Who does Elvis Costello think he is... Bruce Springsteen?
The British rocker, whose concerts used to be so brief that you could fit them into your lunch hour, turned his Tuesday night appearance at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena into a marathon.
While his 2½ hours on stage was considerably short of Springsteen's by now almost legendary four-hour shows last year at the Sports Arena, the extra length posed a major challenge for Costello, whose music is so intense that audiences tend to be drained after even an hour.
Would he lose impact by stretching his concert from, say, 20 songs to more than 40?
Except for a couple of times when it was difficult to follow the lyrics of new songs (given the arena's uneven acoustics), my attention didn't wander for more than a heartbeat.
Costello, who mixes inventive lyrics with frequently intoxicating rhythms, weaves absorbing tales about desire and betrayal in human relationships — songs so filled with
emotional shading that they literally take him from a whisper to a scream.
Even though Costello has softened his image considerably since the angry-young-man days of the late '70s, his shows continue to be characterized by an exceptionally high degree of tension.
Unlike Springsteen, whose celebrative dashes around the stage give audiences a chance to release the tension built up in his songs, Costello simply stands at the microphone, keeping the emphasis on his music. A move for him is rarely more than a wave of the hand to punctuate a key lyric. Even when redoing an old number, he normally reworks the arrangement so that your attention remains captured.
Besides nearly an album's worth of new material, Tuesday's show was highlighted by almost a dozen country songs. Unlike Costello's rather languid Almost Blue LP, this was mostly exciting, commanding country music, suggesting this Englishman really does have a great country album in him.
Who does Elvis Costello think he is... Hank Williams?
If Costello, whose real name is Declan McManus, had more self-confidence when he was starting out, he might have chosen Hank or George (as in Jones) rather than Elvis as the first half of his stage moniker.
Costello loves country music but figured he'd have little chance of being accepted in that U.S.-based field because he's English.
After establishing himself as an important figure in rock, however, he did come out of the Nashville closet briefly in 1979 when he did a night at the Palomino, the country-music showcase in North Hollywood. Between his usual rock tunes, he slipped in a few country numbers, including the old Jim Reeves hit, "He'll Have to Go," and the grisly novelty, "Psycho."
He also featured an occasional country song, including his own agonized "Stranger in the House" and wry "Motel Matches," on his rock albums and joined in a TV special that saluted his country hero, George Jones.
But Costello didn't make the full plunge into country music until this year when he went to Nashville with producer Billy Sherrill to record Almost Blue, a respectable, though still disappointing country collection of (mostly) standards in which Costello seemed intimidated by the country tradition. Rather than exert the forceful elements we find in his own music, he simply tended to retrace interpretations already given the songs by such worthy singers as Merle Haggard, Don Gibson, Gram Parsons and Jones.
On Tuesday, however, Costello exhibited none of that hesitancy as he infused the country material with so much of his own freewheeling vision that a few of the tunes from Almost Blue were barely recognizable in their new form.
With the nicely tailored backing of his three-piece band the Attractions and guest steel guitarist John McFee (from the Doobie Brothers), Costello turned Charlie Rich's "Sittin' and Thinkin' " from the slow, bittersweet lament offered on the album into a vigorous, honky-tonk workout, giving the song an invigorating new slant.
Similarly, Costello changed the frisky but directionless album version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" into a jolting exercise with much of the fury and punch of his own "Lovers Walk." The only songs from the album that weren't improved were Haggard's "Tonight, the Bottle Let Me Down," which was rushed, and Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," which simply lacked the haunting vocal qualities that both Gibson and Emmylou Harris have brought to the anguished ballad.
Costello, however, did wisely step beyond the Almost Blue material for some surprises, including a fireball rendition of Johnny Cash's old "Cry, Cry, Cry" and the eerie madness of "Psycho," though the Sports Arena acoustics probably made the song difficult to follow for anyone hearing it the first time. If you want to really hear it, the song is the flipside of Costello's new British single.
Costello could be the most influential country-rock figure since the late Gram Parsons, whose work with the Flying Burrito Brothers helped shape the Eagles' introspective style. His craggy voice lacks the purity of Willie Nelson and the dynamics of Waylon Jennings, but there is a wholly convincing edge to his phrasing that makes the most heartfelt vocals chilling.
Despite his feel for country, though, Costello remains primarily a rocker and the heart of the Sports Arena performance underscored that point: It was a dazzling mixture of driving and gentle songs that only touched the surface of his extraordinary body of work.
Costello, who has shown no dip in songwriting quality despite the demands of six albums in five years, is still on such a creative roll that he previewed almost an album's worth of new material.
While several of the tunes were in his intensive melodic rock style, a few of the ballads had enough pop elegance to suggest that Costello's recording of Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" a few years back was no idle gesture. Could it be that he might next try an album of pop standards? Note: The bow tie and white shirt he wore during the second half of Tuesday's show would be ideal for a supper club.
And, you don't have to worry about Costello's self-confidence any more. Though he still had some of the most dynamic rockers of recent years at his disposal when he came back at nearly midnight for the final encore, he turned away from the predictable upbeat finale of most rock shows in favor of "Alison," his most tender ballad.
The choice was particularly appropriate because Costello, as much as anyone in the rock era, has lived up to his early promise. Though he remains a controversial figure in some rock circles, he has exhibited an integrity and commitment that make the key line in "Alison" all the more affecting: "My aim is true."
From this week's mail, there are lots of people who think the sedentary experience of watching the Rolling Stones on TV is thrilling rock 'n' roll. For me, that show doesn't even hint at the stimulation of seeing someone like Costello live. Oops. Here come the letters again.
Besides the Moonlighters, a slick, but intermittently interesting mixture of guileless rock of Loggins & Messina and the sharper, Southern-roots bite of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Tuesday's bill also included a solo set by Phil Alvin, the lead singer of L.A.'s Blasters. Accompanied only by his own electric guitar, Alvin gave a spirited display of country blues, establishing a remarkable, club-like intimacy in the large hall.
You can still catch Alvin and the Blasters, rapidly becoming acclaimed by critics as one of America's finest new bands, tonight at the New Olympic Auditorium (with Black Flag) or next Thursday at the Roxy. Costello, meanwhile, continues his three-city tour with shows tonight in New York and Sunday at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.