The triumphant return of the Bespectacled One to New York after a two-year absence — three sold-out nights totalling nearly 10,000 seats — seemed somewhat minimised by the Police's recent clean sweep at Madison Square Garden.
The Costello camp unwittingly compounded the irony by playfully billing the evening's entertainment as "Squeeze With Special Attractions Elvis Costello."
But Elvis scored his victory not at the box office but on stage, going 24 rounds (including two encores) and scoring a knockout in each one. A flurry of lyrical jabs, flash of those snarling Costello tonsils, the fancy fingerwork of Steve Nieve, the one-two rhythmic punch of Bruce and Pete Thomas; absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it was clear enough from the first song that Costello and the Attractions are as hot as, if not intensely hotter, than I'd remembered them.
Special guests Squeeze took quite a bit longer warming up their engines. As pop-'n'-rock tunesmiths, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are go-go, but for the first half of their set the band's spirit seemed to have went-went. They had already gone through most of Argy Bargy and premiered a few new songs before hitting high gear, ripping through "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)," "Another Nail In My Heart," and a blast of boogie woogie called "Yap, Yap, Yap" with power and panache.
In fact, the only loose screw in the Squeeze hit machine is new keyboard man Paul Carrack, who could use a double shot of stage presence. In high contrast to the comic relief of the now-departed Jools Holland, Carrack was all work and no play, cracking nary a smile even during an otherwise strong take of his big hit with Ace, "How Long."
Costello took dead aim with his first number, the dramatic piano-and-vocal vignette "Shot With His Own Gun," and never stopped firing, taking time out only for uncharacteristic pleasantries like "Thank you" and "Good evening."
Looking quite natty in a three-piece suit and a bright yellow cravat and the red shades he sports on the cover of Trust, Costello dared the audience to keep up with him, stopping on a dime and shifting rhythmic and lyrical gears like a race car driver negotiating a road map of the soul.
He went from a sinister whisper of a vocal on "Watch Your Step" to a bloody roar on "This Year's Girl," while Steve Nieve's almost churchy organ provided the segue from "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" to an emotive reading of "Clowntime Is Over." The Rumour's Martin Belmont came out to add some six string punch from "New Lace Sleeves" and Glenn Tilbrook stepped up for his duet with Elvis on Trust's "From A Whisper To A Scream."
The night, however, belonged entirely to Elvis and he had more than a few tricks up his well-dressed sleeve. Patsy Cline would no doubt have cocked an eyebrow at his high-tension treatment of her country and western waltz "He's Got You." Elvis built the set up to a stirring climax with "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love And Understanding)?" and "Radio, Radio" and then ended it with the overcast cocktail shuffle of "Big Sister's Clothes."
And for his second encore, he turned the ersatz reggae of "Watching The Detectives" into high-amp psycho skank, interpolating a slice of Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster" for soul spice.
When it was all over and the house lights went up, the crowd still screamed for more. As if Elvis hadn't given them enough.