Back in the days when Elvis Costello still had a day job, you could find him puttering around computers. So it should come as no surprise that more than a few computer literates were among the 3,000 who flocked to see their spectacled hero at Mesa Amphitheatre. One fan was keeping score with Costello's set list from the previous night's San Diego show, which another Elvis fanatic had posted on a Prodigy bulletin board. Throughout the entire show, you could see him furiously checking off each song as it went hammering by.
When the final results were tallied, Costello's aim appeared to be true to that list, except somewhere along the way we lost "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" but gained "All the Rage," "My Science Fiction Twin" and "Peace, Love and Understanding" in the bargain.
To say this show was eagerly anticipated among diehard Costello fans would be a gross understatement. His latest album, Brutal Youth, finally reunited him with the Attractions for the first time in seven years — seven years Elvis has spent mostly playing with studio musicians trying to sound like the Attractions.
The average listener might think of the trio merely as Elvis' back-up band, but together with Costello, they forged an alliance as unique and powerful as that of the early Who. Take this classic lineup out of the mix — as Elvis did for the last three albums, save for drummer Pete Thomas — and it's like watching those Andy Griffith shows without Don Knotts.
Though Elvis was the obvious focal point of the show, it was nearly impossible to keep one's eyes off of Steve Nieve, certainly the world's most aerobic keyboard player. During the first five numbers, he dropped to his knees often enough to make you think Shane Stant was hiding underneath his piano with a lead pipe. Drummer Thomas trilled like a brick of firecrackers that just got tossed into a steel trash can, leaving bassist Bruce Thomas to fill up any available space with bottom. Just like the old days. All that was missing was Elvis' persistent sneer and pigeon-toed stance — pre-'82 mainstays for the man once called "the Sultan of Spite."
The Mesa show amply demonstrated that Elvis can still rock with the reckless abandon of yore, even after turning 40 and touring with a string quartet.
True, some of the menace of "Lipstick Vogue" was gone, but as a celebratory encore, it was no less thrilling. Costello himself seemed genuinely surprised that this devoted crowd cheered loudest whenever he coaxed Neil Youngish white noise from his Fender Jazzmaster. Never one known for his ax-wielding prowess (he's gone as far as billing himself Little Hands of Concrete on several albums), Costello nonetheless pulled off a riveting and emotional solo at the close of "Party Girl." Things even got downright playful when he engaged in a call and response with Nieve during "Clown Strike," ending with the keyboardist tossing in a few bars of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. "I don't know how the hell that happened," Costello shrugged.
Unlike Pink Floyd's stadium extravaganza last month, this show's prop tally consisted solely of one tiny bust of Beethoven on Steve Nieve's monitor. And, even though the set leaned heavily on the first three albums, you could hardly call this a "greatest-hits show," since Costello omitted his two lone Top 40 hits, "Veronica" and "Everyday I Write the Book." Instead, he juxtaposed a dozen Brutal Youth songs with 15 older favorites, neither sounding terribly out of place. In fact, given the new album's characteristic brittle sound, the live show sounded even more produced and polished than the studio work, which may qualify as a rock n' roll first. Although Elvis Costello and the Attractions may still sound like last year's model, the new material proves that both were built to last.
Crash Test Dummies opened up the show while it was still daylight, to better catch people wearing pajamas. The band saved its two hits for last, "Pajamas in the Daytime" and "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," which sticks to the roof of your mind long after you've forgotten the rest of this group's repertoire. Although entertaining, something about lead singer Brad Center's stage demeanor is off-putting, particularly in the efficient way he introduced the other members of the group, oozing with the clipped insincerity of a flight attendant indicating where the emergency exits are.