Philadelphia – “I want to give you an example of uncomplicated behaviour,” Elvis Costello said this week, on the second day of a three-night stand at the Tower Theater in suburban Upper Darby. With that, he bent over his electric guitar and slashed his fingers across the strings a few times, raising an awful racket.
The audience cheered and laughed, in on the joke: Costello was preparing to play a song called “Uncomplicated.” But as we all knew, an even richer joke was the unstated one: Elvis Costello never does anything uncomplicated.
Everything, from the way he organizes a concert tour to the knotty, profuse lyrics he stuffs into his songs, is rife with complication – it’s what makes this British songwriter and singer on one of the most interesting and challenging performers in rock.
A full decade into his recording career and appearing in America for the first time in two years, he had dubbed this tour “Costello Sings Again.” Performing in only six cities, he made Philadelphia his final stop. As he did everywhere, he gave a completely different performance each night:
On Monday, Costello spent half the show singing solo with an acoustic guitar, the other half performing with a band that included guitarist James Burton, who once upon a time held the same position with the Other Elvis.
On Tuesday, Costello offered the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook”: a carnival wheel at least 12 feet tall labelled with the names of close to 50 songs. Volunteers came up from the audience to give the wheel a spin, and wherever the wheel stopped, that was the tune Costello and his longtime backup band the Attractions performed.
“You decide what we shall play,” yelled Costello, who introduced himself as “your host, Napoleon Dynamite,” a genial verging-on-unctuous new persona.
There was also a ‘60s relic: a go-go dancer’s cage, into which the volunteers – variously chagrined, elated or nonplussed – were ushered for the duration of the song. On a nearby table, a portable television was tuned to the ABC network’s prime-time lineup; this is the only concert I’ve ever attended where the star admonished the audience to “stop watching ‘Moonlighting’ and pay attention to the music.”
On Wednesday, the gimmicks were gone: Costello and the Attractions roared through a long set of songs that surveyed his career, with special emphasis on his new album, “Blood and Chocolate” (Columbia), Costello’s finest – his best-written, most emotional – record since “Get Happy!!” (1980). In the liner notes, the authorship of all “Blood and Chocolate” songs is ascribed to Napoleon Dynamite. See what I mean about complicated?
Across town, Bob Seger was at the Spectrum riffling through the Raymond Chandler songbook, making hard-boiled romanticism sound rosy to the masses. At the Tower, Costello was busy making the same quality truly intimidating.
It’s no wonder Costello isn’t in the Top 10 or filling a big arena. The intensity of his performances, particularly on the first and last nights here, was both exhilarating and chilling; professional showmanship was forever being undercut by the detailed confidences being offered in the songs.
By any measure, Costello is one of the most unlikely people to have become a major songwriter and pop star. He looks like a puffy version of the young Wally Cox – Mr. Peepers crossed with Mr. Potato head – and whenever he’s on stage, his face is invariably coated with a glaze of perspiration, the inevitable result of both his passionate singing and the black suit with shirt buttoned tight against his throat that is his standard stage costume.
But if Costello began his career in 1976 as a horn-rimmed rocker, the most articulate punk to come out of England, the Avenging Nerd, he has spent the intervening decade deepening his public persona in a way no other rock performer has ever accomplished. His closest parallel is Bob Dylan, to whom Costello owes the artistic freedom to stuff more words into a rock song than its melody will hold.
Dylan has gone through more artistic “periods” than Picasso – his folk period, his rock period, his couldn’t-care-less period and so on. Costello has done something similarly musically, moving steadily through punk, rock, country, folk and pop with the implacable rapaciousness of a tapeworm. But he’s also changed his relationship to his audience in a way Dylan never did.
Alternately hostile, confiding, sarcastic, resentful and avuncular, Costello keeps his fans on their toes and tries their patience. Certainly, many people will remember the days in the late ‘70s when it was not uncommon for Costello to tell his audience to shut up, or for him to stomp off the stage after a half-hour, steaming over some slight that no one could fathom.
During recent interviews, Costello has ascribed some of his behaviour to the impetuosity of youth. After all he was only 21, poor – and furious about it – when he first came to prominence. That was source of his initial appeal. In the late ‘70s, Costello hated the big business that rock music had become as much as many of us did. He was, more than anything else, a fan, or rather an idealized one, capable of stating his case with far more skill and precision than most fans can muster.
That’s the big difference between Costello then and now: After years of resisting it, he has finally accepted the fact that he is more of a professional entertainer than a fan – he’s crossed the line. And while he’s still fond of indulging his fannishness (this is the obvious reason for the Spectacular Spinning Songbook – a way to make renewed contact with his followers, to feel their enthusiasm onstage with him), his professionalism has freed him to create his most ambitious work.
Costello’s closing-night show with the Attractions offered exciting versions of longtime crowd-pleasers like “Accidents Will Happen” and “Green Shirt”. He folded a verse of the old Drifters hit “On Broadway” into his own “Clubland” so that we could hear where his song came from.
The heart of this performance, however, was the riveting versions of “Blood and Chocolate” songs like “Blue Chair”, “Battered Old Bird” and the extraordinary “I Want You,” in which Costello recasts the Beatles’ serene “I Want You” as a wracked sob over love betrayed.
(“Blood and Chocolate” is, in fact, shot through with Beatles references – it can be heard, in particular, as Costello’s homage to John Lennon, right down to the “I Am The Walrus”-like bridge in “Crimes of Paris.”)
Costello also sang a couple of new, unrecorded songs – as if his songbook weren’t already massive enough, with 12 albums released in the last 10 years. Costello providers the rock and roll example of A.J.Liebling’s famous newspaperman’s boast, “I’m faster than anyone better, and better than anyone faster.” One of these songs, whose title I heard as “Jack of All Parades,” has a love-at-first-sight plot that might be telling the story of his courtship of Cait O'Riordan, a member of the Irish band the Pogues and also Costello’s new second wife.
It was O’Riordan, in fact, who helped to provide the high point of “Costello Sings Again.” After three nights of rough rock, earnest crooning and loony joking, the greatest moment was also the quietest.
Preparing to sing, “Crimes of Paris,” Costello brought out O’Riordan, introducing her only as “my favorite person in the world,” a dead giveaway of a honeymooner in heaven. O’Riordan started out singing the lovely, swaying melody at a microphone a few feet away from Costello, but before the last verse came around, he motioned for her to join him.
He strummed his guitar, she put an arm over his shoulder and as they sang into the microphone, their foreheads touched. After the last words were sung, they ended the song the only way it should have – with a quick kiss. I swear, the two girls sitting in front of me were wiping away happy tears, and I was a little misty myself.