Elvis Costello and Squeeze, who appeared as an all-English bill at the Warehouse last Friday night, have shared styles and have brought a melodic respectability to contemporary English rock. Now, after four years, they are finally sharing the stage on a tour designed to consolidate their audiences.
The house was packed by the time Squeeze opened things with a clean, sprightly set that included material from all but their first album. The group's typically well-crafted songs have always seemed a bit too subtle and melodic for most rock audiences, but tunes such as "There at the Top" worked wonders for their reputation as rockers.
The keen lyricism of the Chris Difford-Glenn Tilbrook team wasn't entirely wasted on this occasion, though, as they glided through a handful of bouncy numbers, mostly from the albums Cool for Cats and Argybargy. Lead singer Tilbrook looked sweaty but relaxed as he explained why they were doing revised versions of "Goodbye Girl" and "Slightly Drunk."
The sound was well-mixed but spotty at times, so drummer Gilson Lavis wasn't always heard to best advantage. The group's new keyboard player, whose name was blurred by Tilbrook's thick accent, will have quite a way to go toward filling the shoes of the recently departed Jools Holland, who has formed his own group, Jools and the Millionaires.
Despite the variety of new and old material performed, Squeeze's set seemed somewhat short, with the splendid "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" and "Another Nail in My Heart" getting the best interpretations. Given enough time, Squeeze will make its mark in America. Its "Cool for Cats" was A&M Records' biggest-selling single ever in England, and the group's alliance with Costello (Tilbrook even appears on the new Costello LP) can't hurt.
Costello then appeared without much delay, creeping to the front of the stage in darkness. It didn't seem like an artificial gesture, even if the singer, who entered the world of pop music in 1977 with the aim of becoming a new "king," is at the peak of his popularity.
Being known for milking dramatic situations, though, he sang the ballad "Just a Memory" as an opener, and all the lights didn't come on until the Attractions joined him for "Accidents Will Happen."
Overall, Costello made the most of his second New Orleans public appearance. The first, in November 1977 at Jed's, was part of his first American tour, three months after the Attractions had been formed. He did perform here a couple of years ago at a private party for Columbia Records executives, when that company held a convention in town, but he canceled a Baton Rouge date in 1979, due to food poisoning. This time he was appearing as a full-fledged star, in apparent good health, with a mood to match.
The diversity of Costello's repertory was impressive. He included about two dozen songs, among which were such non-Costello-penned tunes as "Little Sister," a Doc Pomus number popularized by someone named Presley in 1961, and Patsy Cline's "I Got the Picture, He's Got You."
Costello's six albums and extensive repertory (he has recorded more than 100 original songs in four years) represent a man who has soaked up practically every pop influence of the century and churned them out in exquisitely compact packages. Before anything else, he is a pop composer who happened to emerge from the English rock milieu.
In live performances, his chief vocal antecedents seem to be Little Richard and James Brown. His readings of "Hand in Hand," "Big Tears," "Green Shirt" and "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" were done with exemplary control. But "This Year's Girl" and "You Belong to Me" showed the vocal parallels with Little Richard most strikingly, with the same emphatic phrasing, tinges of desperation in the vibrato and alternating levels of tension in the repeated verses.
Costello has a tendency to overstate certain phrases when facing an audience. It was expected during "Secondary Modern" and "King Horse," but couldn't be detected on the material from his new work Trust, much of which sounded like Bo Diddley and Phil Spector orchestrating World War III.
The Attractions sounded spirited, despite the uneven sound system. In the center and rear of the hall, the sound was mixed but dispersed too widely. Off to the sides, though, the definition was better and had a crisp echo. Bruce Thomas' bass probably wasn't that evident in the back, but it certainly came across in other places. During "Clowntime Is Over," drummer Pete Thomas' rim shots were stunningly vivid.
As he lurched and reeled about the stage, Costello looked like he might be prepared to do one of his longer sets, but he and the Attractions ended up doing about an hour and 15 minutes, average for them.
As an encore, "Watching the Detectives" was given perfunctory treatment, but the handling of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" was superb.
After the release of his first album, Costello said that he would retire when the time was right, and would rather be dead than hear himself decline "in a series of diminishing echoes." As long as he can revive the spirit of Little Richard while making listeners marvel at his lung power and resistance to sore throats, as he did during this show, Costello will probably be around for a little longer than he thought.