Yesterday's afternoon-into-evening rock concert at JFK Stadium featured Genesis, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Blondie, A Flock of Seagulls and Robert Hazard and the Heroes, as disparate a collection of rock bands as you're likely to find.
The standout act of the day was Elvis Costello and the Attractions. The British quartet took the stage just after 6:30 p.m.; three bands had preceded them, and the massive crowd was beginning to feel the effects of a hot, sunny afternoon that was rapidly cooling off. The odds were against Costello, to be sure. In addition to a restless audience, he was showcasing material from his new album, Imperial Bedroom, a set of adroitly phrased love songs whose subtleties should have been difficult, if not impossible, to render in this huge stadium with poor acoustics.
Yet Costello gave an extraordinary performance. He is known as an exceptional songwriter — perhaps the finest of his generation — with a nasty temper and a froggy voice. Yet recently, Costello has seen the limits of his furious-young-man stance; although it has inspired remarkably passionate, fiery music in the past, it also has limited his subject matter severely. Imperial Bedroom presents a more calm, contemplative Costello. Many of the new songs strike me as fussily phrased and mannered, but there's no denying these compositions' power and sincerity.
Amazingly, Costello conveyed all of this complexity at JFK Stadium yesterday. Dressed in a somber gray suit that belied his cheerful enthusiasm, he sang in a ringing croon and won over the crowd, transforming a sagging audience into a group of lively dancers. Most impressive was a tough, jagged version of "Shabby Doll," one of Costello's new songs, and he even included a salute to Philadelphia: As a prelude to his own "King Horse," he sang two verses of the O'Jays' great "Backstabbers," a landmark of "Philly soul" music. It was a perfect performance.
Less perfect but almost as impressive was Blondie, the band led by singer-sex symbol Debbie Harry. These days, Debbie is no longer a pure blondie; she's also a brunettie — her hair yesterday had thick, dark streaks in It. harry and her partners are enduring a rough time: Their new album, "The Hunter," isn't faring well commercially. But yesterday their performance was a peppy, witty one. The band has had the good sense to speed up the slack tempos of many of the new songs, and it ran through its early hits with clever aplomb. Harry's voice had a lustrous flatness — that's her trademark, and she does it well — and she bounced around like a teenager, doing go-go dances in a black and white zig-zag pattern mini-dress.
One odd occurrence: Early in Blondie's set, drummer Clem Burke threw a small fit and tossed a few drums and one large gong at someone just off-stage — a technician, perhaps, with whose performance Burke was unhappy. That's too bad, because Burke's drums sounded wonderfully dense and cutting, and as usual he's one of the best elements of this band.
Genesis was the headliner of this show. The English band appeared last, just after night fell, and their lighting effects were every bit as impressive as had been advertised. Unfortunately, the band was the victim of a muddy sound system that muffled the voice of Phil Collins and obscured the keyboards of Tony Banks to an annoying degree. Their fans didn't seem to mind, however, and cheered wildly for Genesis' grandiose, melodramatic music.
The day began with a yeoman-like set from Robert Hazard and the Heroes, hometown idols who were reviewed here recently, and A Flock of Seagulls. The latter is an English band that's scored an American hit with the song "I Ran." Yesterday, at least one Seagull was ill, and as a consequence the band performed less than half an hour, hardly enough time to figure out whether it was good or not.