Since Elvis Costello first thrust his angry, accusing music at an unsuspecting public in 1977, he has released eight albums in five years — nearly 120 songs in all.
For a moment last night at the Stanley Theater, it seemed he might be ready to play them all. Costello and his band, the Attractions, worked up so much momentum during their frenetic show that the sellout crowd would not let them go.
Band members had barely caught their breath after a rapid-fire, 22-song set, when they ran — yes, ran — back onstage for three more songs. Another short break, then four more. Then, six on the final encore. That's 35 songs in about two hours.
And nearly all of it was excellent. Costello, an intriguing, perplexing figure, has gone far beyond the bitterness of that brilliant first album. His lyrics now run the full range of emotions, and his music is equally varied.
He included songs from all phases of his career, and threw in some' extras, like Smokey Robinson's "Head to Toe," a verse of the O'Jays "Backstabbers" and Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To)" from his country album.
The work rate of the band was' phenomenal. It hardly paused between songs, and often ran two or three numbers together. Though the band is classically spare — guitar, bass, keyboards, drums — the arrangements managed to give each song an individual character.
Much of this is attributable to keyboardist/arranger Steve Nieve. His playing is as nearly as rhythmically important as that of bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas, and Nieve's melodic fills on nearly every song were impeccable.
But Costello, his voice and his songs are most impressive. Just as his songwriting has matured and broadened, his voice has taken on added dimensions. On his slower songs — "Almost Blue," "Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," "Alison," "Kid About It," among others — his deep, rich voice was wonderfully controlled and expressive.
Even on his famous fast ones — notably, "Hand in Hand," "Red Shoes," "Pump it Up," "Radio, Radio" — he showed considerable vocal virtuosity. Throughout the show, Costello was the lone singer, no support or harmony from the others. And yet his voice stayed strong.
He sang eight songs from his current album, Imperial Bedroom, and each was well-received by the enthusiastic crowd. Though the real rockers belong to the earlier years, each new song contained something interesting — Nieve's work on "Shabby Doll" and "Pidgin English" and the Elvis's singing on "Tears Before Bedtime" and "Town Cryer."
The audience went nearly nuts on some "oldies" from way back in '77-'78: "Watching the Detectives," "Red Shoes," "You Belong to Me" and "Accidents Will Happen."
The encores were a show in themselves, reaching peaks on "Mystery Dance" and "(what's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?"
The opening act was Talk Talk, a band from London featuring Simon Brenner on synthesizer and some excellent singing by Mark Hollis. Melodic syntho-rock, kind of slow but kind of mesmerizing.