More than any other English new wave or punk band, Elvis Costello has taken New York by universal acclaim. He performed three times here this past week, each distinctly different performances which revealed a rich talent and finely etched persona.
First, he performed four sets at the Bottom Line club and all four shows were well-attended by press and industry people, a solid indication of corporate support.
For the Bottom Line shows, Costello stuck basically to his recorded repertoire, and his fans were already familiar with most of the material.
He means business. He never smiles. It is this severity of demeanor that provides a cutting edge for his romantic vision, and saves it from sentimentality. His tough (but fair) outlook makes a song like "Alison" work; it might very well become an American AM hit.
Still, while the audience at the Bottom Line came to hear his more recognisable, tuneful compositions ("Red Shoes," "Alison,"), the numbers that cut the deepest were "Less Than Zero," performed with knife-point sharpness by the band, and a new composition, no doubt inspired by the American radio stranglehold on the music scene, (but certainly applicable to the UK), simply titled "Radio Radio." This too is a guaranteed "underground" hit.
For the third night of his New York stand, Elvis and band were feted by Columbia Records at the Ukrainian National Home, an unusual location, but a practical one nonetheless; this is a ballroom with tables on the sides, but plenty of room in front of the bandstand for people to stand, dance, jump, or what-have-you, and the electricity of all those bodies must have had some effect on Costello.
He played an all-rock-out set, chock full of double-time boogie numbers, most of which sounded new and unrecognisable to these ears, but welcome in any case. He opened strongly with "Radio Radio" and proceeded to burn his way through an hour's worth of short, punchy, dynamic numbers.
With the exception of "I'm Angry" and "Miracle Man," the set was largely new, and, I'm told, is material from his next album.
But perhaps the most impactful performance given by Costello in New York was his brief (two numbers) stint on the popular Saturday Night Live programme, wherein he began his spot with the first stanza of "Less Than Zero" and then suddenly waved the band to a complete halt, and spat out: "This is all wrong" and proceeded to rip into "Radio Radio" (a much wiser and more germaine-to-the-USA number) and the reggaebounce of "Watching The Detectives."
Elvis Costello is going to be very very popular in New York — whether he likes it or not.