Elvis Costello deals in greens. Not the pretty greens of spring that will soon be upon us, but the ghastly greens of vomit and ghouls. Thus it was perfect that so much of the rock 'n' roll show he brought into Masonic Temple in Detroit Friday night was lit by unearthly green lights.
Elvis has always seemed an alien in rock, much stranger than David Bowie's character in The Man Who Fell To Earth, but Friday night he seemed determined to prove it once and for all with his devious lighting schemes. Everything stood out in vivid contrast; when Elvis and the Attractions were glowing green, lamps were tinted purple, red or blue shot out from the back. When he was red, his backdrop was white, blue, or green.
We were not prepared for the angry purple search lights that flashed on at the beginning of "Lipstick Vogue," sending the stage into an eerie, smoky darkness not unlike the final sequence in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Many of us felt attacked; a friend later told me she thought a car had rolled onto the stage. I've always been reminded of Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun" by this song; this time Elvis's spaceship lighting and Steve Naive's lyrical organ made the illusion complete.
I write first about the lighting not because it was the most striking aspect of Friday night's show, although it was, but because it seems to capture Elvis's contradictory personality even better than his music does. He is a man of many emotional extremes, running from impassioned rage one moment to sensitive tranquility the next. He sings of hate and love, mostly hate, but his vicious songs, like "Oliver's Army," are upbeat pop tunes, while "love" songs like "Two Little Hitlers" are more somber.
Elvis was in surprisingly good humor, sprinkling mild remarks between songs as he ran through an hour's worth of material taken mainly from This Year's Model and Armed Forces. He opened with a slowed-down version of "Hand in Hand" that seemed more uninspired than anything else, but the pace picked up quickly as he jolted into "Goon Squad." By the end of this pessimistic number, Elvis and the band, Steve Naive on breezy keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums and Bruce Thomas on bass, were kicking out torrents of evil sound.
I'd like to do a song dedicated to all the boys in no-man's land working behind enemy lines." Elvis muttered before a disappointing version of his song about mercenaries, "Oliver's Army." While the version on Armed Forces sports a sprightly keyboard line of which the Beach Boys would be envious, here it was lost in a plodding din of brass and guitar.
"Green Shirt," on the other hand, was Elvis at his best, putting the band through carefully arranged patterns as he, washed in bright green lights, attempted to find meaning in utter desolation.
The evening was very playful, as Steve Naive's stray keyboard riffs added a sense of amusement to almost every song. "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?" benefited from this lightness, and other tunes like "The Beat," "Watching the Detectives," and "Pump It Up" gained from a relaxed attitude that permitted short instrumental forays.
Fast songs like "Radio Radio," "You Belong to Me," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," and "Accidents Will Happen" were the order of the evening but "Alison" in all its breathtaking glory, more than held its own against these speed demons.
The audience was surprisingly subdued, but even this didn't seem to bother Elvis. He merely joked at the beginning of "Pump It Up," the finale, "We have heard over in England, that Detroit is a rock 'n' roll town. The only thing puzzling to me is I have never seen a lot of rock 'n' roll done sitting down. This song is called "Pump It Up," as in standing up." The crowd, seemingly bewildered, rose to its feet and made a feeble attempt to dance. Elvis must have been laughing behind his stoic veneer, but if he was, he wasn't letting us know.