One of the most talked about new faces to appear on the rock music scene in the last twelve months made a return visit to Kansas City Saturday night. Elvis Costello's knockout performance at the Uptown Theatre came just months after his initial appearance at Pogo's, a Kansas City discotheque.
The set lasted just over an hour, but that was enough time for Costello to run through 17 songs, one of whch was new and the rest evenly divided from both of his albums.
His hair noticeably longer, Costello shed his famous thin tie but did wear a dark suit with the trousers just a wee bit too short. Looking quite like the ultimate nerd, Costello jerked around the stage posing and staring — demanding attention. He used the dynamics of his music to perfection to sustain the attention — sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting.
Costello and his band, the Attractions, played rock 'n' roll stripped to the basics. The group included only a drummer, a bassist and a keyboard player to backup Costello and his Fender guitar. As the lineup might indicate, the sound was reminiscent of the early British rock bands. It was not revival rock, though. As Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone magazine writes, "(Costello's music) does not refer back to classic rock: it is classic rock."
What is more important than style is Costello's passion for rock 'n' roll. It is this intense commitment that has garnered a full page spread in Newsweek and an album of the year award from Rolling Stone for his first release.
Hailed as the most intelligent of the New Wave performers, Costello may be even more than that. Coupled with the hard-driving rawness of his music are lyrics with as much bite as Bob Dylan's finest and as much perception as any by Jackson Browne or Randy Newman.
Many of the lyrics either got buried under the roar of the amplifiers or rushed by so quickly that they were lost the moment they hit the air But those that did get through were pointed, powerful and often painful.
Costello began his set with "Lipstick Vogue" shouting lines like "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor." With one exception, that theme pervaded the entire show.
Costello expressed the fear of infidelity in "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" — "I said, 'I'm so happy I could die,' She said, 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy" and the resignation to that fear in "The Beat" — "I don't wanna be your lover, I just wanna be your victim."
This resignation was tempered in the bittersweet ballad "Alison," Costello's only single release to date. The song, conspicuous in its absence at the Pogo's concert, provided a brief respite to the anger in the rest of the tunes.
Costello seems petrified and yet tantalized at the thought of love. Knocked down, he comes cursing back for more. It is ironic then that Elvis, born Declan Patrick McManus, is a happily married 23-year-old with a small child.
Perhaps the strongest song of the evening, though, was "Radio, Radio," a stunning commentary on U.S. radio: "And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools, trying to anesthetize the way that you feel." Upon the song's conclusion the crowd stood and cheered as Costello left the stage only to return twice for encores.
Opening the show were Costello's mentor and producer, Nick Lowe, and Mink DeVille, a New York band.