Last night's Elvis Costello and the Attractions concert at Memorial Auditorium begs for comparison with another British group's live performance, that of The Clash.
Actually, "begs" is a little contrived, and Costello could be discussed on his own merits easily enough. But, along with the fact that both groups are England's best musical exports of the last few years and two of my favorite artists, there are additional reasons why the performers can and should be compared.
The Clash, whom I saw last month in Cleveland, and Elvis Costello are both engaged in warfare. As is evidenced by their latest albums, the war is being waged against creeping fascism, misdirected imperialism, loss of individuality, sacrifice of ideals, stupidity.
The difference between the two is that The Clash are doing their fighting in the trenches, while Costello has promoted himself to the rank of general, asking us to fight the battles while he stands back indifferently after drawing up the battle plans.
In other words, on stage The Clash carry out their battles actively. Battle plans or songs are one thing, and theirs are as good as Costello's, but beyond that they perform them with limitless energy, jumping, hollaring and leaping acrosgJhe stage. The energy is contagious, and the soldiers in the audience don't have to be drafted into dancing and clapping along they enlist.
Costello, on the other hand, has always remained withdrawn on stage. The persona used to work, for before the new album was released Costello was fighting his own private battles.
He wasn't surveying any map; instead he was beset by all those personal traumas outlined in numbers such as "Allison," "Big Tears" and "Lip Service."
If he was detached, it was because Costello was obviously a man too defensive to enter into any relationships, even if it was with his audience. Now, though, he appears to be a man in control, fighting where and what he wants, and his choice to remain apart from his listeners seems not defensive, but rather contemptuous.
The audience responded enthusiastically to all of the songs last night, but not until Costello gave the nod to stand during "Radio Radio" did the crowd remain on its feet. Certainly Memorial Auditorium is partially to blame, because it is an auditorium, with chairs instead of a dance floor.
Still, one can't help but remember that last year Patti Smith, another warrior from the American side, had most of her audience standing throughout her show in the same theater.
Enough of this stupid analogy. Actually, it's a defense of my own. Because, even though Costello is one of my favorite performers (I have seen him twice before), and even though the sold-out audience obviously loved the hour-long concert, I found myself greatly disappointed.
I know it's obnoxious to say, "I saw him when he was ready good," but I'm afraid that's what it boils down to. Costello probably did give the best concert of the year so far, but he has done better.
Not only did he again remain almost stock still, but this time his band joined him. The drummer really pounded the skins, but beyond that there really didn't seem to be much energy flowing on the stage. The energy was instead created by an audience thrilled to see the New Wave performer, but it's always been hard for me to work myself up if those on stage aren't doing the same.
The defensive Costello of last year was at least filled with nervous energy. This time, he remained emotionally cool to the proceedings about him. The question posed in the opening of "Lip Service" "Are you only going through the motions?" could easily be asked of him.
Beyond that, it's almost unnecessary to say that the mix of the instruments could have been better. The drums were very loud, and while sounding impressive, they totally masked what the organist was playing. And Elvis' guitar could hardly be heard at all.
Opening for Costello were the Rubinoos, a pop quartet who enjoyed tight harmonies and a superior sound mix. But although the foursome had plenty of energy, it was lost in the bland original material. "Please, Please Me" and "Walk, Don't Run" kept the audience happy, even though any good feeling was almost ruined by the particularly condescending lead guitar player.
Write, call and complain if you want. But this is one concert I really expected and wanted to like. Honest.