In case you haven't noticed, the word "rock" has become a suffix which can interface with just about any musical idiom imaginable to produce a new category. Recently, someone coined "New Wave Rock" and began slapping it on any driving rhythm this side of punk-rock nihilism.
Like most niches, it's more imaginary than real, judging by the definition acted out Thursday night at the Orpheum Theater by three men who represent the foremost proponents of the idiom.
British rocker Nick Lowe, who cynically describes his music as "pure pop for now people," started off with a set which ranged from a rockabilly form reminiscent of "Promised Land" to electric street blues. Although his newest material is more frenzied, Lowe hasn't forgotten the bounce and tight harmonies of Brinsley Schwarz, his original band, which went broke doing New Wave before it was a category.
Though they had last billing in this show, Lowe's band, abetted by the guitar work of Dave Edmunds, equaled both Mink DeVille and the Elvis Costello band instrumentally.
Mink DeVille, a group which hails from this side of the Atlantic, earned a warm reception when they started off with "Venus of Avenue D" followed by "She's So Tough," both from Cabretta, their first LP.
But they had some trouble interesting the audience in material from their new, unreleased album. The one glowing exception was "Desperate Days," a hard driving, reggae influenced piece which had people dancing in the aisles.
"Soul Twist," another number from the new album, smacked of self plagiarism with a riff and rhythm suspiciously reminiscent of "One Way Street." It was a crowd pleaser nonetheless, and earned the band a gunslinging encore.
The only real disappointment in Mink DeVille's set was the noticeable absence of more soulful selections from Cabretta. In an apparent attempt to maintain a constant level of frenzy, leader Willy DeVille refused to slow the pace for the Motown-like "Little Girl." Nor was he willing to try "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl" without back-up singers.
Elvis Costello was more courageous. But then, he can afford to be. In order to stand out amidst the roar of white noise generated by today's overhyped international music machine, a performer has to exude a unique personal magic and take a strong musical stance, unwavering, uncompromising and innovative.
Costello is as solid as the rock from which he chisels his songs. Somewhere within this man, who looks like a British Woody Allen In a sustained state of electrocution, lives a heart that beats in a constant, fat-back 4/4 rhythm and a mind that eats melodies for breakfast. His lyrics generally explore the outer limits of the nervous system.
Hitting the stage with "Waiting For the End of the World," Costello burned his way through a set of fourteen songs built around eclectic samplings from the last 25 years of rock and roll. The speculation that his first album was just a fluke, a one-shot deal, dissolved as Costello intermixed new material with old, each number more distinctive and exciting than the last.
Still, the high points of the concert were songs the audience had memorized from My Aim is True, Costello's first album. Tunes like "Alison," and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" had already become underground classics when he first played at Bunky's several months ago. By the time he exploded on the Orpheum stage Thursday night the entire album had been memorized note-for-note by die-hard fans.
In a way, that helped because Costello's live arrangements lack the precise execution, background vocals and simple sophistication of his recorded work. Backed by only bass, organ and drums, his aim was true enough, but the shot was scattered a bit more.
Both "Alison" and "Red Shoes" might have suffered from lack of vocal harmonies if memory hadn't provided them intact. The same was true of the beguiling fuzz guitar that snakes its way sinisterly through "Watching the Detectives."
When it was over, the meaning of "new wave" was as fuzzy as ever, but the audience was sure it wanted more. They seemed just as sure that the miracle man named Costello was destined to become a major voice in pop music.