Elvis Costello's New York debut Tuesday night at the Bottom Line was another of those eagerly awaited rock-and-roll occasions that make following the rock world here so amusing, Mr. Costello is a leading member of London's new wave, at least in the looser sense of that term, although he really owes more to the pub rockers like Graham Parker and the rhythm-and-blues revival lists like Southside Johnny than to the true punks.
What made his debut an event was the quality of his first record, both the songs themselves and the performing. Mr. Costello's songs at their best are really fine examples of late-70's rock toughness — hard and driving and fiercely unsentimental, with a variety of emotion and theme that far transcends punk basics. The closest parallel is Mr. Parker, but Mr. Costello has a wider musical range and adds a dour wit to Mr. Parker's mythic depth, as in his wonderfully eccentric yet evocative "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."
Mr. Costello is like Mr. Parker, too, in the angry urgency of his voice and phrasing and in the spare and deliberately unpolished
sound of his band.
Nearly all of these attributes were on hand at Tuesday's early show; if Mr. Costello was a victim of nerves, he subsumed it into his pre-existing image. The decent if slightly plodding band consists of Mr. Costello on rhythm guitar (there is no lead), plus a keyboard player (organ, mostly, which lends the sound a wailing, Animals-Doors flavor), bass and drums. Mr. Costello's voice was miced up higher than usual, which was all to the good in a rock world in which the vocals are often (mercifully) buried in the sonic.
In England, Mr. Costello appears on the Stiff record label, and in concert he fills that bill. Dressed in a modified gray zoot suit with wide, padded shoulders and floppy pants, with a green shirt, narrow tie, black horn-rimmed glasses and a long crew cut, he is clearly making some kind of visual statement. Add to that a rigid walk, a collection of exaggerated grimaces and a tense, unsmiling demeanor, and you have a decidedly odd stage presence.
While arresting, this peculiarity does undercut the complexity and seriousness of the songs: it seems almost as distracting and irrelevant as Leo Sayer's mime-whiteface when he first appeared here, and perhaps Mr. Costello will modify his visual packaging in future visits. While he's at it, he might get a sharper band and reconsider his set to build to a more convincing climax; on Tuesday he did "Red Shoes" and another of his finest numbers, "Waiting for the End of the World," as his second and third songs. Even so, he gave an interesting, satisfying performance.
The opening band was Tuff Darts, which stuck together (with only minimal shifts of personnel) and won itself a recording contract after the loss of Robert Gordon as lead singer. The new singer goes by a variety of monickers (this week, according to Sire Records. it's "Tommy Q. Public"), and sings well enough, if without Mr. Gordon's distinctiveness.