"Power pop" is more than just a phrase. It is an angry sound, in tone-deafening volume, and it was heard at the Theatre St-Denis last night where one of its foremost practitioners, Elvis Costello, made his Montreal debut.
Costello's post-punk sound comes from Britain, and while one year ago he was just a rumor, he's caught on so last that his appearance here was part of a North American tour.
Costello has one of the more interesting backgrounds among the "power pop" groups (Foreigner, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers). The 23-year-old singer comes from the British working class (born in Liverpool) and until a year ago he was a computer operator for Elizabeth Arden.
He is married and has one child, but the rest of his background is shrouded in mystery. He disdains interviews and reveals absolutely nothing about himself.
As a performer, Costello (his real name is Declan MacManus) tries to do with the pigeon-toed walk what Chuck Berry did with the duck walk — make it his ensignia.
Clad in a tight business suit, with knees pressed close together, Costello sang songs from his first album, My Aim Is True, songs reflecting his roots — "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," "Alison," "Less Than Zero."
Costello brings these roots — his working class background — to his music. It is loud, it is soft, it is hard, it is brittle, but the deafening volume at last night's concert made the lyrics difficult to understand.
The spotlight focuses on him (he has two guitarists and a drummer), a green or white light, like a death wish. His guitar, slung around his neck, looks too big on his tiny frame.
Whether his image is a calculated publicity gimmick or not, Costello's style has such a vengeance and cool intensity that it's charismatic. It is a style that repels in order to attract.
The two warm-up acts helped to make last night's concert a powerhouse. They were one of the New Wave movement's originators, Nick Lowe (another Brit), and Mink DeVille from Brooklyn.
Lowe's sound was clean, pleasant, getting back to the roots of rock. Lowe and his back-up band are a strong act, but even though their music is pleasant, it's not memorable.
DeVille tries to be a mean mother but ends up a bad boy. There are some nice melodies to his songs but his useless stage strutting detracts. Besides that, it is derivative and affected. Others have done it before and better. The only way to polish up this number is to skip the frills and just play the songs.
The three groups together, as an evening's performance, were worth a lot more than the price of admission.