Musical consistency and show-business perseverance are two qualities not often combined by English pop stars. America is a tough market, both vast and severe in its requirements, and it has been the downfall of scores of such groups who have tackled it without preparation.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions have known the pitfalls of American touring for seven years. during which they have assaulted the U.S. to promote a series of albums. Such persistence has resulted not in the kind of enormous following that shifts concerts to stadiums, but in a cult-group status that never quite breaks through to a bigger market.
Costello has never had an album or single that has gotten anywhere near the top of the American charts. The reasons for that failure aren't typical, though: His 10 albums have covered more varieties of music than most any of his contemporaries can hope to match in a lifetime, and his songs require from listeners a degree of intellectual involvement that is alien to today's pop scene. He is in an odd position. being a master of intense and varied styles in a field that honors cool and fleeting ones.
The Costello who appeared, along with Nick Lowe's Cowboy Outfit, at the world's fair amphitheater on Labor Day remains a seasoned, unassailable performer still trying to penetrate America's musical heart. For two hours he attempted to fray his vocal cords while coursing his way across an immense repertoire with varying degrees of success. The less-than capacity crowd cheered his endurance.
Repeating his own songs in a note-perfect style hasn't been a Costello trademark through the years: he simply loves to take license with his material. "Watch Your Step," the devious warning from his Trust album, was a case in point Rather than sing it in the sotto voce style that gave the song much of its tension on the record. he instead did it in a hammering fashion, and rushed it somewhat.
Then came the first of several surprise selections — the full-throttle "Lipstick Vogue" from This Year's Model. It was all whip-flick lyrics and panting double-time, just the thing to set up "Watching the Detectives," the opening strains of which were greeted by an ovation that would have made you think this was his biggest hit.
Something that appears to be a Costello concert staple is the frequent milking of exaggerated dramatic pauses. With "Mystery Dance" and "Shabby Doll" he was certainly guilty of the practice on this occasion. At times he seemed almost to delight in trampling over his own nuances, ignoring the subtler aspects of certain pieces in favor of hollered readings. Whatever the case, he rocked ardently, which was probably what his audience wanted anyway.
Another surprise came in the form of "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," a 1967 Byrds hit that Costello did not so much painstakingly restore as claim for his own purposes. Following that, he instructed bassist Bruce Thomas to illustrate how they had lifted the bass introduction to "Sour Milk-Cow Blues" from Lee Dorsey's "Working In The Coal Mine," which proved that there is honor among musicians as well as petty thieves.
Costello's performance was actually a 90-minute affair followed by a half-hour encore. As the latter phase began he gave the Attractions a brief rest while he performed solo. A new song, "There's Nothing at the End of the Rainbow," didn't seem out of character following the group's rough-and-tumble blast. And one line in the ironic "Peace in Our Time" was altered to take a poke at Vice President George Bush, who was putting in a world's fair appearance at the same time.
When the Attractions returned for another onslaught, one wondered why drummer Pete Thomas hadn't been hospitalized for exhaustion, and why keyboard player Steve Nieve now appeared under the name Maurice Worm. In any case, they stormed through "Everyday I Write the Book," "Getting Mighty Crowded" and "Alison." Costello's voice was still holding up, and he persisted in taking the burlesque route of interpretation for some of his finer phrases. Still, he proved to be such a rugged performer that it didn't seem to matter after two hours.
Costello's ex-producer, Nick Lowe, opened the show with his new group, the Cowboy Outfit. Lowe offered what he has relied on for years: big-beat rock without frills. Fixed stylistically somewhere between Chuck Berry and Creedence Clearwater Revival, the group mixed familiar Lowe compositions ("Marie Provost" "I Knew the Bride") with contributions from singer-organist Paul Carrack ("Tempted," "I Need You"). Guitarist Martin Belmont somehow managed to be both showy and concise, and Lowe's bass was stupefying in its amplification: It rattled the floor and penetrated the chest as much as it was heard in the ears.