There's a tape of Elvis Costello recorded in Washington, D.C., during a late '70s tour that has attained an almost mythic status among Costello fans. It's with good reason: The encapsulated show catches Costello and his Attractions at a point when they were almost single-handedly assaulting the complacency of '70s pop music (they alone of the punk invasion made a dent on the U.S. charts) with a brand of rock at once brilliantly crafted and performed with an adventurous edge that verged on chaos in live performance.
Nearly as startling as the immediacy, passion and invention Costello and band revealed on that early tour, is that almost a decade later they were capable of performing the same material with the same undimmed fire.
Wednesday night — the first of five varied, sold-out shows Costello is performing at the 1,400-seat Beverly Theatre — nearly half the songs in Costello's 25-song set dated from 1978 or earlier. And "Mystery Dance" from his debut 1977 My Aim is True sounded as fresh and vital as the pounding "Uncomplicated" from the just-released Blood and Chocolate album (see album review below).
More than almost any other rock artist, Costello seems aware of how difficult it is to keep one's artistry fresh, and provides himself with challenges to keep it so. He's taken masterful turns at solo and symphonic concerts, country music and other edgy propositions (at Irvine Meadows a couple of years back, he, without warning, plunged the band into a set of songs it hadn't played or rehearsed in years), and has continually grown as an artist as a result.
Shunning the standard arenas this time out, Costello is playing extended runs at small theaters throughout the country, and at the same time giving himself a nightly challenge. Each evening Costello is performing in different contexts and with different players: with the Attractions; solo; with various surprise guests; and with the Confederates (the Elvis Presley veterans and session players from the King of America album).
Halfway through his Wednesday show Costello threw the set open to requests. As a red game-show "request" light on the front of the stage came on, audience members passed slips of paper to the stage, and the Attractions went to work on those they'd heard of. "You've got the weirdest taste," Costello announced. "There are about 25 here we don't know, but thanks for the dollar bill."
While most of the requests they played ran to the old or familiar, all showcased Costello and the group's current state of artistry. Few would argue that Costello is blessed with a great natural voice, but what he has learned to do with it is amazing. Even on his hardest rocking numbers Wednesday there was evidence of a saloon singer's mastery of phrasing and shading. And as did the best Southern soul singers of the '60s, Costello would get caught up many times in the emotion of the moment and embellish, or entirely reinvent, a melody line.
The intensified older ballads "New Lace Sleeves" and "Green Shirt" were two highlights, but Costello's best vocals came on the more recent cover "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," where his passionate vocal elicited a spirited audience singalong, and "I'll Wear it Proudly" from King of America. Costello built the song as a slow-burning emotional anthem, which drew to a close with great Hammond organ swells from keyboardist Steve Nieve and a Steve Cropper-like guitar sting from Costello.
While Costello's songs and singing justifiably attract most of the attention, one of the inarguable elements fueling his art is that few groups outside of the jazz world can play as simultaneously tightly and freely as the Attractions do. On Wednesday, Bruce Thomas displayed his abilities as one of the most melodic, creative bass players in rock often filling a solo role — yet he never lost sight of the bass's function of motivating the songs. Drummer Pete Thomas is a rhythmic dynamo in the best Charlie Watts-Al Jackson Jr. tradition.
And Steve Nieve. Steve Nieve! What can one say about a keyboard player whose work consistently careens toward pandemonium, who Wednesday changed comping styles roughly every 15 seconds behind Costello on "Alison," and who, beyond reason, somehow makes his musical aberrations work to the benefit of the song at hand?
Few groups in rock are as good as Costello and band, and none are capable of delivering the reckless magic they served up Wednesday on a rendition of "Lipstick Vogue," which was every bit as propulsive and chaotic as that on the legendary Washington, D.C. tape.