What is he up to? It's the motivating question for most Elvis Costello fans — one of the big reasons for going to his concerts. We want to know about the evolution of one of rock 'n roll's most accomplished, versatile and unpredictable songwriters.
We found that out Sunday, when Elvis Costello and the Attractions and show opener Nick Lowe performed before a sellout crowd at the Carr Performing Arts Centre in Orlando.
Lowe, who cut his musical teeth as a bassist with English bands Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile, led his three-piece backup group through more than a dozen songs. Among them were his better-known singles "Cruel To Be Kind" and "Raging Eyes," and the Farfisa-laced "Half a Boy and Half a Man" and the Chuck Berry-ish "Maureen," from his new album, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit. As if to acknowledge the limitations of his boyish voice, Lowe let keyboardist Paul Carrack (formerly of Squeeze) sing almost half the songs in the set, including the Squeeze hit "Tempted." It was uncluttered rock 'n' roll that perfectly set the mood for Costello and the Attractions.
That Lowe and Costello are billed together is as much a matter of promoting new albums (Costello's is titled Goodbye Cruel World) and compatible styles as it is a symbol of their working relationship. Lowe helped sign Costello to Stiff Records in 1976 and produced Costello's first single, "Less Than Zero," as well as five of his albums. Costello has recorded 10 albums in all and has his own string of production credits (including work for the Specials, the Bluebells and Lowe himself).
But what is he up to now?
Dressed in a blue-and-white checkered shirt, dark jacket (always buttoned) and dark pants, Costello continues to preserve an image that is part Buddy Holly, part rock 'n' roll anomaly. His music, however, continues to evolve.
As prolific as he's been these past eight years, Costello must be up against a wall when making up a song list for a 2½-hour show. He did sing favorites such as "Pump It Up," "Mystery Dance" and "Alison," and surprised everyone with a version of the Byrds hit "So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star." But for Costello to limit himself to older material is contrary to what he (and the record business) is all about.
This tour is, after all, organized to sell Goodbye Cruel World, and Costello excerpted heavily from it. Though it is not his best album, it still is full of wit, melodic adventurousness and musical risk-taking. Moving from the album's savory pop ("I Wanna Be Loved") to raucous rock ("The Deportees Club") to warm ballads ("Love Field"), Costello gave these songs new life.
His voice is remarkable, not as a "nice-sounding" instrument but as a cutting and molding tool that is full of rage one moment, tenderness the next. As the only musician onstage with a microphone, he showed that he is a master at coaxing the maximum emotion and power from his songs. The Attractions consisting of drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas and keyboard wizard Steve "Neive" Nason have improved into one of the best bands in the business.
I'm only hoping now that, with such solid backing and with continued encouragement from his audience, Costello will continue to take risks.