Elvis Costello is one of rock's most captivating new arrivals, but the English singer-songwriter hasn't got the best sense of timing.
After complaining last weekend about the media's preoccupation with angry-young-man undercurrents in his music and manner, Costello threw a tantrum Tuesday night at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Apparently angered by equipment problems that stripped the music of some power, the 23-year-old rocker hurled his guitar down, kicked over an amplifier and stomped off the stage about 40 minutes into the show.
But the audience refused to leave. Not even the turning on of the house lights and, eventually, the closing of the stage curtain stopped the cheers from those hoping to lure Costello back for another try.
After several minutes, he and his Attractions band did return, but the equipment continued to give him problems. Midway through the second encore number, Costello again flung the guitar. Prowling the stage with a tense, almost explosive air, he finished the song and then left.
Adding to the strange, maniacal mood, the band's Bruce Thomas threw his bass on top of the drums, leaving the instruments in a tangle. This time the curtain closed for good.
The incident will no doubt serve as a colorful anecdote for Costello enthusiasts, but it also left a dark, disorienting aftermath to what otherwise was a stirring concert hall debut here for the singer.
Far more confident and convincing a performer than his Whisky appearance last November, Costello bristled with energy and purpose, often punctuating the lyrics with dramatic hand movements.
Without resorting to the primitive, safety-pinned attire or often self-conscious hostility of the British punk movement, Costello does reflect the relentless determination of that rock contingent.
He could benefit from a second guitarist to give his four-piece outfit's music variety and punch, but his lyrics are among the most finely honed and involving of anyone in rock, and the overall sound is enticing.
Despite an intensity and bite that provide a frequent angry backdrop, the music is a richly fulfilling blend of humor, compassion and desire. "Mystery Dance," which opened the show, is a lighthearted look at awkward sexual awakening.
"This Year's Girl" is a tender look at the victims of a trendy, values-lacking society.
"Red Shoes" is a sly, mocking jab at self-pity which includes a line that perhaps best summarizes Costello's somewhat bittersweet, recovery-from-life's-pain approach: "Well, I used to be disgusted / Now, I try to be amused."
Beyond the starkness of his mostly stern stage stance, there's a celebratory, we-can-pull-through-the-problems-together tone to Costello's music. As with most superior artists, there's an uplifting message behind the glimpses of disappointment and doubt.
That's why the temper display near the end of the hour set was self-destructive. Rather than building toward an exhilarating climax, Costello short-circuited the process, leaving the incident rather than the music as the final impression.
With the equipment problems presumably corrected, Costello will have more chances this week to build that more satisfying momentum. His concerts tonight at Long Beach's Millikan High School and Sunday at Hollywood High School are sold out, but some tickets are still available for Friday's show at UC Santa Barbara's Robertson Gym.
Costello was joined Tuesday by Mink DeVille and Nick Lowe, two other rock attractions which have gained considerable critical support and are now trying to build audiences to match. Like Costello, they deal in a punchy, dynamic style that is a refreshing change from the blandness of many of today's rock headliners.
Lowe, whose Rockpile band opened the show, deals in a delightfully entertaining, highly accessible brand of '50s-spiked rock. While a pleasing singer and able bass player, Lowe shows the most strength as a writer and arranger. He produced both of Costello's albums.
The rockabilly-accented music is narrower in theme and style than Costello's, but it has a sparkle and vitality that is difficult to resist for anyone with a fondness for rock's Chuck Berry-Buddy Holly-Elvis Presley origins.
Despite the simple surface to Lowe's music, there's an intelligence and skill in the design that make him particularly inviting and rewarding. His new Pure Pop for Now People is a charming introduction to the music. Dave Edmunds, himself a much respected British artist has a featured role in the Rockpile band. Besides contributing several stylish guitar solos, he sang lead on three tunes.
Mink DeVille, who followed Lowe on stage, serves up an intense, highly sensual brand of R&B-spiced New York street-corner rock. Though the band's backing is generally unadventurous, lead singer Willy DeVille is a dynamic singer who is able to project both the tough, switchblade aura and vulnerable sidelights of the group's music. His stance, however, is grating and self-conscious at times.
The material, too, is uneven. While some of the stark, upbeat material works, much of it is simply routine. The high points Tuesday were on the gentler, more melodic and caressing "Mixed Up, Shook Up, Girl" from Mink's first album and "Just Your Friends" from the new collection.