Elvis Costello and the Attractions were in rare form for their recent performance at the Universal Amphitheater. Always an excellent showman, Costello's performance on the final date of his American tour eclipsed any of the previous shows this reviewer has seen Elvis perform in Los Angeles.
Although Elvis traditionally opens his show with the impassioned anti-nuke ballad "Accidents Will Happen," he opened instead with his latest variation on emotional fascism, "Sour Milk Cow Blues," from his newest LP Goodbye Cruel World. This pounding rocker had the capacity crowd on its feet as the first chord was struck. It was just the first in a series of highlights during his 45-song two-and-one-half hour set.
Elvis Costello, formerly Declan McManus, has always been something of an enigma in the pop music industry. In 1977, at the height of the English punk phenomenon, the 22-year-old Costello catapulted to national prominence with his first LP, My Aim Is True. Hailed as a masterpiece, this album explored such disparate themes as misogyny, the National Front (England's version of the Ku Klux Klan), TV detective shows, nuclear disarmament and sexual frustration.
By 1978, Costello had formed his group. The Attractions consists of Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas (no relation) on bass and Steve Nieve (who just recently reclaimed his real name, Maurice Worm) on keyboards. The result of this collaboration was This Year's Model, an LP that fleshed out the promising beginning of My Aim Is True. Since then, Elvis and The Attractions have released a total of 10 albums, each a revelation in itself.
On his musical pilgrimage, Elvis has cultivated myriad influences. The hard-edged rock of 1979's Armed Forces, 1981's Trust, the 20-song treatise of '60s soul, Get Happy, the similarly-styled 1983 album, Punch The Clock and the LP of country standards, recorded in Nashville with veteran country producer, Billy Sherrill, in late 1981.
All these genres, plus a little Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter thrown in for good measure, coalesced in 1982, when he recorded the baroque pop classic, Imperial Bedroom.
During the show he introduced material from his latest LP, Goodbye Cruel World and also managed to include songs from his earlier records, which met with shouts of approval from the diehard Costello fans.
After his opening tune, Costello, clad in a bulky grey suit and the obligatory pointy red shoes, burst forth with a rollicking trio of songs, "Let Them All Talk," "Lipstick Vogue" and "Watching The Detectives," which spotlighted the tight rhythmic prowess of Bruce and Pete Thomas. Although some of the tunes lacked the polish of their studio versions, Elvis and the band more than made up for this with versatile musicianship. Their stripped-down combustion was augmented by a tenor sax player whose presence lent a piquant flavor to such Costello standards as "Mystery Dance," "Clubland" and "Beyond Belief."
Other highlights included a languorous version of Costello's latest hit, "The Only Flame In Town," the jazzy "Inch By Inch," which was enhanced by a stealthy sax solo, and "Worthless Thing," a brittle commentary on media exploitation.
As always, Costello's cover versions were an eclectic sampling of his own listening pleasures. This time out, he performed a spirited version of the R&B classic "I Feel Good," Australian composer Joe Calimeri's "Young Boy Blues" and The Shirelles' hit "Baby It's You," accompanied by opening act Nick Lowe.
Within the past couple of years Costello's encores have evolved into mini-concerts themselves. During the first of three encores, he returned to the stage alone to perform acoustic versions of the soul hit "The Bells" and "Peace In Our Time," wherein he angrily questions America:
"You've already got one spaceman in the White House
What do you want him back again for?"
He also previewed a new song, pessimistically entitled, "Nothing To Grow Up For Anymore."
For the second encore, Nick Lowe and Cowboy Outfit's alternate vocalist, Paul Carrack, joined Elvis to sing harmony on "The Only Flame In Town" and "Everyday I Write The Book."
From the audience, Sam Moore of the legendary R&B duo Sam and Dave, joined Elvis on stage for the final encore. They performed a spirited version of the old Sam and Dave tune, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," which Elvis recorded on his Get Happy LP. Elvis was clearly awed by sharing the stage with one of his idols.
Opening for Elvis was Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit. The group proved a formidable match for Elvis. The music, a fusion of country, soul and pop, had the usually jaded Costello-philes bopping in their seats. Trading vocal chores with Lowe was Paul Carrack, who has played keyboards in such notable groups as Madness and Squeeze, In fact, he provided the lead vocals for Squeeze's only American hit, "Tempted." All in all, an incredibly satisfying evening!