Elvis Costello continues to amaze and confuse.
Costello, the angry hero of England's new-wave rock scene of the late '70s, shocked the music world in 1979 when he denounced Ray Charles, James Brown and the stupidity of American black music.
He later offered a feeble apology and then made the Motown-influenced Get Happy album.
Now he has hit the concert trail with his most ambitious show ever, one that owes something to Charles, Brown and even the Nat (King) Cole / Frank Sinatra school.
Costello's performance with the Attractions Sunday at Northrop Auditorium was as winning as it was quizzical. The music has matured, the Attractions have grown by leaps and bounds, the light show has become elegant in its starkness and Costello continues to startle us with his presence and programing.
Obviously, the once-implacable 28-year-old Briton has mellowed. He even talked to the crowd of 4,152 people at length Sunday, marking the first time he has said more than a few words to audiences here.
But he still jarred the legions with a weird pacing that alternated the kind of wordy, keyboard-washed ballads he has been fond of lately with the intense, angry rockers that established him in '77.
The fans reacted like a collective jack-in-the-box, springing to their feet for the uptempo tunes, then sitting and bouncing up again.
Costello has learned to harness his intensity. His verbal assaults are still potent if long-winded, but his delivery is no longer snarling and vitriolic. He's now more of a crooner than a screamer.
Furthermore, the rough edges have been taken off his backup trio. Drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas have developed into a smoothly proficient rhythm section, and keyboardist Steve Nieve has become the most valuable player in the group. Not only does his manic manner make him more fascinating to watch than Costello, but his sophisticated and often inventive playing has defined the luxurious music on Costello's last two, Cole Porter-styled albums. In concert, the sound has simply been boiled down to the beat and the keyboards, with some tasty coloring added by the four-man T.K. Horns. Costello's rhythm guitar work seems inconsequential at this point of his stage career.
Regrettably, Costello's singing has not progressed commensurate with his music and his sidemen's musicianship. His voice is still raw and untrained, with a limited musical range but a precious expressive quality; at his best, he sounds like Ray Charles with a sinus cold.
Costello's coarseness and uncompromising conviction have been part of his appeal. Oddly, though, the high point of the 110-minute concert was the quietest song of the night, "Shipbuilding," about how the impending war will revitalize employment in a town.
The new tune received a tremendous ovation even though before it was over one fan yelled out: "Elvis is tame."
That may be true. Some of his old rockers including "Red Shoes" and "Peace, Love and Understanding" were more controlled than frenzied. The '60s soul-styled horns added nice touches, especially on the exciting. "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down." Yet, more recent, medium-tempo pieces including "Everyday I Write the Book" and "Watch Your Step," with Nieve's cascading piano, ranked as the high points.
Regardless whether Costello met one's expectations or not, there was no question by the end of the concert that he continues to be one of the most fascinating songwriters and figures in rock music in the last half-dozen years.