When Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe first toured the United States together in 1978, no one knew quite what to expect. Neither had recorded enough to demonstrate whether they were changing forces in pop music or just clever flukes.
It was with some surprise, then, that local audiences that year discovered Lowe to be an engaging, witty performer, and that his band, Rockpile, was one of the most talented, if lovably ragged, bands in rock.
Meanwhile, Costello would have proved a wonder even if he'd been preceeded by a mountain of hype. Bespeckled, and looking downright anemic in his photos, Costello and his three-piece band turned in intense, emotional performances. One had only to see the cheering, sweat-drenched audiences left in Costello's wake to know that a major artist had arrived.
Though hampered by a bad sound mix for much of the show Saturday, Costello gave a powerful 35-song performance that touched on all the bases of his career. Costello seems to work best when faced with challenges, as shown by the stunning one-man show he toured with this spring.
In its own way, Saturday's show presented even more of a challenge: just taking his same old act and keeping it sounding fresh. There was little new to the show — even some of the songs from his current LP were introduced on his last two tours — but, even treading water, Costello turned in one of the more exciting shows of the year.
He and the Attractions started out charging with the boisterous "Sour Milk Cow Blues" from his latest Goodbye Cruel World album (called Goodbye Cruel Johnny Carson by Costello, in apparent reference to his having to endure Joan Rivers' lame questions on The Tonight Show last Wednesday). The Stax oldie "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," "Lipstick Vogue," and an uptempo "Watching The Detectives" kept the crowd on its feet.
The Attractions, as always, proved the perfect foil for Costello. Bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas (after all these years they're still not related) maintained a rhythm section that was at once tight and inventive, and Steve Nieve (now affecting the alias Maurice Worm) managed his usual trick of verging on, but never quite reaching, utter chaos with his keyboard work. Augmenting the band this time out was Gary Barnacle, whose electric saxophone was run through a bank of computerized harmonizing devices to create a one-man horn section.
Considering the less-than ideal voice Costello started off with, he has made himself into quite a fine singer. Particularly on his slower material like "In A Love Field," "I Want To Be Loved," and "Shipbuilding," Costello displayed a formidable range of emotional expression and nuances of phrasing.
These skills were best displayed on Costello's first encore. Abruptly cutting the party atmosphere he'd built with his set, Costello appeared alone onstage with a guitar to deliver a brooding version of Richard Thompson's "End Of The Rainbow," a song about life's pitfalls that's perhaps the most depressing song ever written.
He continued on that somber note with "Peace In Our Time," and "Shipbuilding," each delivered with an impassioned intensity.
Costello promoted a different mood when he came out for his second encore call. He kept the crowd on its feet and dancing for seven songs, beginning with an excellent duet with Lowe on the early '60's classic "Baby It's You." Lowe's keyboard player, ex-Ace, ex-Squeeze vocalist Paul Carrack, next joined Costello for the rousing "The Only Flame In Town." After four more songs, Costello finally brought down the house with an extended version of "Pump It Up."
The near-capacity crowd seemed to be the usual mix of hard-core Costello fans and South County kids who flock to anything resembling a new wave show at Irvine.
Nick Lowe's all-too-brief set found him in his best form in years, looking trim, and apparently much happier since his much-publicized parting with the bottle. Lowe's an expert craftsman of pop melodies with clever, deft, word play for lyrics.
Carrack's white-soul vocals were featured on "Tempted," "How Long," and "I Need You," and ex-Rumour Martin Belmont's rocking guitar received a share of the spotlight. It was clearly Lowe's show though, as he demonstrated in his fine singing on "Crackin' Up," "Raging Eyes," and "Half A Boy And Half A Man," inexplicably, the only song offered from his current LP.