The lights go down as the crowd roars in expectation and approbation. Onto the stage walks the entertainer, a lone point of light isolating him from the surrounding darkness. The lovely, lonely strains of an organ waft out and the entertainer launches into his opening ballad: "'Cause the moments that I can't recall / Are the moments that you treasure... Losing you is just a memory / Memories don't mean that much to me."
The moment is timeless. It could be 1945 at the Brooklyn Paramount or 1981 at the Palladium. It could be Frank Sinatra or Elvis Costello. And that's the whole point. After launching his career with songs written on pure bile, fueled by guilt and revenge; after fronting a speedy, hard-bitten band who pushed themselves past the limit in song after song, just to keep up; after exploring a different facet of pop music consciousness on each of five albums — Elvis Costello has reached a point beyond classification. He has become the master song stylist, the poet, the common conscience and common consciousness. He is the complete and consummate popular artist.
The stand –up interpretative leanings go way back, before “Shot With His Own Gun” and “My Funny Valentine”, and the piano-only “Accidents Will Happen”, to that cover of “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” on Live Stiffs. The man was aiming at genre transcendence all along. Now, after a process of musical base-touching, I believe we are seeing the “real” Elvis Costello the core of the artist.
Trust bears this out. For the first time, Elvis presents an album that doesn’t lean to a stylistic genre for support. True, there are borrowings from the pop past and hints of his own past work (a first really) but there is also a distinctively “Elvis” style that holds the compositions together. For the first time, we can probably guess what the next Elvis Costello album will sound like.
Live, this progression has been truer, straighter. On earlier tours, Costello and the Attractions started out as a full-force gale that grew into a hurricane. Later, they learned to set pace and dynamic nuance within songs, but still operated in the straight 4|4 time of lyrical R&B constructions. Now there are waltzes (“New Amsterdam”), neo-classical figures (“Shot With His Own Gun”), Bo Diddley boppers (“Lovers’ Walk”) and lots of the Elvoid mutant pop that adorns his last three albums. Once Elvis Costello concerts followed the progression of sex starved hermit in a bordello, starting hard and climaxing into a “Lipstick Vogue”/”Pump It Up” frenzy. Today’s model is more subtle, still in total control. He teases, he flirts. He twists the proverbial knife until it hurts. Then you’re off the hook – for a while at least.
He’s dropped a lot of old favorites (the two last mentioned, “Chelsea”, “Oliver’s Army”) in favour of some newies. Too bad they’ve gone, but you don’t really miss them. Get Happy!! is amply represented with nine numbers, all but “Temptation” taken from side two, six more songs are culled from Trust. All in all, some 26 tunes parade across the stage, including covers that ranged (in various shows) from Patsy Cline’s “He’s Got You” to the Temptations’ “Don’t Look Back” to Junior Parker’s “I Need Love So Bad” to “Little Sister” by Elvis !
While Costello’s assured, effective and expressive singing leads the songs through melodic loop-da-loops, bassist Bruce Thomas keeps the beat and provides melodic counterpoint. Steve Naive/Hart bounces from classically-inspired piano accompaniment to psychedelic aural miasmas that curtain the rest of the band. Drummer Pete Thomas supports all with his off-center yet propulsively supple drumming, his snare drop on a stately “Clowntime Is Over” could induce heart attacks.
The personal high point of the Palladium show was the consecutive combination of “King Horse” and “Big Sister’s Clothes”, in this writer’s opinion, Costello’s two most conceptually perfect lyrical work-outs. But the set was really full of highlights. Costello’s Bob Quine –like solo on “Temptation”, the return of “Hand In Hand” to live play, the appearance of Glenn Tilbrook for “From A Whisper To A Scream” and the appearance of Wonder’s “Jammin’ (Master Blaster)” in the middle of “Watching The Detectives”. It was a nearly perfect concert.
Squeeze, who opened, were very good and deserve a review of their own, but are only getting a paragraph. Their live presentation misses Jools Holland’s smarmy wit – he’s been replaced by Paul Carrack, formerly of Ace, who offered a cocktail soul version of “How Long (Has This Been Going On)”. They wisely chose to concentrate on tunes from ArgyBargy, their latest and best LP. “Goodbye Girl” is as close as Squeeze will ever come to penning the perfect pop song, but this night’s pounding boogie rendition obliterated the song’s melodic charm. Up-tempo numbers like “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” fared better. Their diligent efforts were rewarded with enthusiastic demands for an encore.