Over a weekend in New York, Elvis Costello proved his chameleon powers.
At the Palladium he was a consummate entertainer; a performer who built a perfect rapport with his audience and played them for the responses he wanted. At the Bottom Line club the following night, he was more like a fighter. With the audience close enough to see the bug-eyes he was making at them, Costello came out with his fists up.
The Rubinoos, who opened both shows, are a band that everyone can love, though they made an odd pairing with Costello. They look so much like "nice boys," apple-pie clean and wholesome but they do play with punch, creating pop-rock that is simultaneously playfully sweet and powerfully aggressive.
Onstage the group perfectly recreate the three-part vocal harmonies of their records which gives them that bright, bubbly quality. It's rare to see three members of a rock band pay such such careful attention to their singing, and the effort pays off. Behind the voices, Tommy Dunbar's guitar provides the bite.
In keeping with "The World Elvis Costello Tour Three" motif from Armed Forces the roadies were dressed in Army fatigues. But at the Palladium, Costello seemed to be saying that he had come in peace.
He opened with "Peace, Love And Understanding," the band swinging and wild with a sound so full it was almost orchestral. By the end of the second number, "Two Little Hitlers," it was clear that Elvis was a changed man. Last time here he did nothing but sneer, but tonight he was actually smiling at the audience and friendly.
His attitude not only made him a more likeable figure, but made the audience more easy to manipulate. When he pleasantly asked, "You're not going to be a boring, early show audience, are you?" the house got on its feet. Whereas last year, he tried haranguing for the same effect and failed.
Many of the songs were so re-worked or delivered with so much more power and drive that they sounded like completely new versions The material from Armed Forces especially benefited from an injection of venom, and the rough edges were retained rather than being smoothed over, making the songs more convincing.
"Two Little Hitlers" was given an extra verse with new lyrics, as was "Alison." "No Dancing" had a new, disco arrangement and its organ-drum intro was unrecognisable until Costello's vocal.
But the true source of the added impact was Costello's guitar playing and Steve Naive's incredible organ work.
His organ, one of the most-often abused instruments in rock 'n' roll, created atmosphere, soared and jabbed. He's now one of the best players in the business and The Attractions have developed from being an adequate back-up band to become a powerhouse in their own right.
This means that the focus no longer has to be on Costello's dramatic delivery. Now he rarely stands alone in the spotlight making faces while the band remain silent: the kind of moments which frequently dragged down past performances.
This was ensemble playing, and when Costello did make gestures, as in "Chelsea," he was a purposeful drama-master. And when he hung back for a moment in "Big Boys" and then stepped up and snarled, "Everything is so provocative," it was a direct challenge to everyone present.
He then danced to the edge of the stage, attacking with his guitar, getting the audience on its feet; and having done this, he danced back to the band, turning to them with a look that said, "See, I did it!" Yet, Costello's stance was not threatening.
But at the Bottom Line the next night, the audience-performer confrontation one expects at Costello gigs was again evident.
Perhaps it was because he was angry that there were demonstrators outside protesting against his reported racist remarks. Whatever the reason, Costello's delivery was less controlled but more impassioned. He shook himself like a snake's warning rattle; shook streams of sweat off his face. He grimaced and menaced, but the band never had to slow down to let him stare down his adversaries.
But Costello himself was forcefully, dramatically upfront. There was no way he would hide.