While the soft-rock songs of Fleetwood Mac, Barry Manilow and the Bee Gees glut the radio, truly spirited performers such as Willie Alexander and Elvis Costello are convincing audiences in clubs that rock 'n' roll is indeed alive and well.
Last night the much-touted Costello, a newcomer from England, and Alexander, a veteran from Boston, attracted an overflow crowd of 400 persons to Jay's Longhorn. Starving rock fans outside the bar were so anxious to get in they were offering $50 for tickets. They certainly had the right idea: This was a concert worth the extra effort to see.
Costello, 23, a former computer technician, was the hero of rock critics in 1977. His debut album, My Aim Is True, was on more ballots than any other record in a nationwide survey of rock critics conducted by the Village Voice.
Little is known about the musical background of Costello, whose real name is Declan Patrick McManus. He showed up last year at Columbia Records' convention in London and created a ruckus. He was arrested and later signed by Columbia.
Costello's economic, three-minute songs about adolescent rage are generally more effective on record than most of the material he performed last night. For instance, new selections such as "I Won't Ask You to Apologize" and "There's No Action" seemed too economic and too efficient. The rigid, bespectacled Costello, who looked like a Mr. Peepers robot, was so angry and intense that he didn't leave room for any feeling. Thus, the songs seemed without emotion. There was merely urgency without vitality.
However, when the guitarist-singer allowed a bit of room to stretch out musically and emotionally, his performance was uplifting.
New material in Costello's familiar rockabilly-meets-rock-'n'-roll style dominated his 50-minute set. Especially attractive were "The Beat," "Pump It Up" and "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," a slower number that ended with brief, uncharacteristic, rave-up guitar and organ solos.
Unlike Costello, Alexander has experience and polish. The 35-year-old singer-keyboardist has played with the Velvet Underground and several Massachusetts bands. His latest group, the Boom Boom Band, is a powerful trio featuring hot, young guitarist Billy Loosigian.
In its 45-minute set, the quartet served the most straightforward and spontaneous mainstream rock (actually, it's a mixture of rhythm-and-blues and girl-group rock) I've heard in a long time.
Although Alexander's slurring vocals rendered the lyrics undecipherable, he came across as a strong, animated singer with charisma. His most noteworthy efforts were the bouncy "Look at Me" and the droning "Radio Heart."
Opening the concert was Flamingo, one of Minneapolis' leading rock bands whose distinguished music outshined the quintet's overly self-conscious stage presence.