SAN FRANCISCO — If Bruce Springsteen is rock's inspirational base at present, Elvis Costello is its storm center. Where Springsteen will stay on stage four hours to make sure his audience has had enough, the volatile Costello isn't above taking his leave after 45 minutes if he feels he's had enough. No one of Costello's superstar potential since Bob Dylan has guarded his artistic integrity so carefully, freely risking career momentum rather than tamper with his creative instincts.
His performances since 1977 have been blurs of aggression, fostering his "angry-young-man" image with tenacious vocals and acidic lyrics that sought to puncture hypocrisy, betrayal and surrender. The problem with Costello's frequently abrasive stance is that it tended to overshadow the compassion in songs like "Alison" and "This Year's Girl," also leaving his all-but-ignored audiences to wonder whether they, too, weren't the subjects of his rage and contempt.
The breakthrough suggested by the Englishman's concerts with the Attractions band Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Warfield Theater here is that a more confident Costello has learned that he can be a more gracious host on stage without compromising his independence. Not only were the concerts longer than in the past, but he frequently thanked the audience for its response. Noted one fan after Wednesday's show, "I always liked his music, but now I like him too."
Liking an artist is not essential to appreciating his or her art, but it is a key ingredient in the sociology of pop — especially with someone like Costello, Springsteen or Dylan, who seeks to communicate on such a deeply personal level.
The best artists express the aspirations and fears, disappointments and joys which we frequently guard the most carefully. The more you can identify with the singer or writer, the safer you feel in responding to the music. How fitting in this context that Costello's next album, due Jan. 29, is titled Trust.
Angered by equipment problems in 1978 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Costello stomped off stage after 40 minutes, kicking over an amplifier as he left. A year later in Berkeley, he outraged fans by departing after 45 minutes, ignoring pleas for an encore. To compound matters on that tour, Costello thumbed his nose at conventional concert etiquette by playing new songs rather than familiar material the crowd presumably wanted most to hear. And last year, when he released two albums of 20 songs each, he didn't tour at all.
Given that history, it was no wonder fans looked uncertain as they entered the Warfield Wednesday for Costello's first California stop on a tour that includes a concert tonight at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. One couple even joked about making a betting pool on how long Costello would be on stage.
Looking like a riverboat gambler in a gray waistcoat and bright yellow ascot, Costello opened teasingly with a ballad ("Just a Memory"), then roared into the more vigorous "Accidents Will Happen." The audience, already on its feet, danced excitedly to the frantic rhythm.
That type of spirited beginning isn't unusual in rock. The difference was that these fans didn't sit down after two or three numbers, the way audiences do at most concerts. Except for isolated couples, the entire audience on the main floor remained standing for the rest of the 80-minute show, which included several ballads and five encore numbers.
The fans weren't up just to dance. They seemed to want to experience the show as fully as possible. It was not time for passive viewing. Given Costello's independence, you don't know when he'll tour again or if he'll ever do some of these songs again. Seeing Costello, like seeing Springsteen, isn't just an evening out. For his fans, it's a night that other nights and other concerts will be measured against.
The audience wasn't on its feet as much Thursday night, but the intensity level was equally high as Costello, perhaps buoyed by Wednesday's response, seemed even more agreeable. Where he once appeared to view audience affection as a threat to his integrity, he now seems to find strength in the fact that so many respond to his music.
Costello's new material was hampered by the difficulty in discerning unfamiliar lyrics, but the songs reflected the classic Costello fervor that is suggested by such titles as "From a Whisper to a Scream," "White Knuckles" and "Shot With His Own Gun."
One of the highlights was Costello's reworking of "She's Got You," a Patsy Cline country hit from 1962. Costello's expressive vocal on the song showed that he could be the most soulful rock-to-country interpreter since the late Gram Parsons. The song also showed how country music, with the unabashed emotion of its lyrics, helped influence Costello's style, merging with the energy of rock and the heat of R&B.
The most surprising moment, though, came Thursday, when Costello, for the first time in the dozen times I've seen him, completed the rock 'n' roll link by doing a song by the original Elvis: a customized version of "Little Sister." The gesture, which once might have seemed gimmicky, was touching. In an age of over-hyped rockers and unfulfilled potential, it's ironic that the guy who borrowed the name of rock's first star turned out to be such an original himself.
The bonus on the Costello tour is Squeeze, the British quintet which opens the show. Despite a cleverness on record, there's a tameness to its highly melodic pop-rock approach that leaves it unassertive. On stage, however, the group, which recently added keyboardist Paul Carrack from the band Ace, exhibits a more persuasive punch, adding a rawer dimension to its finely crafted sound. The group has had several Top 10 hits in England and, with added exposure, could break through the Top 40 blockade in a big way here.