We learned a lot of things at the Stanley Theater last night.
First, Elvis Costello doesn't look like the typical rock 'n' roller. In his rumpled black suit, black shirt buttoned at the neck, dark-rimmed specs and tattletale-gray white sneakers, he looked more like the class nerd, the one you gleefully dumped into the girls' locker room.
Second, Elvis Costello doesn't stage the typical rock 'n' roll show. There was precious little chitchat with the fans and only one visual effect, white stars beamed onto a black backdrop screen.
Third, Elvis Costello doesn't perform like the typical rock 'n' roller. He writes short, punchy songs — loads of them (his current album, for example, contains 15 numbers) — and doesn't garnish them on record with long instrumental solos. Exactly so in the Stanley last night: 34 songs in about two hours, an average of around 3½ minutes apiece.
Fourth, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, his marvelous backing trio, are as appealing, talented and energetic a bunch of rock 'n' rollers as have come along in a long time.
Much of that appeal is in those songs themselves. Costello loves wordplay: internal rhymes, twists such as "Though you may not be an old-fashioned girl you're still going to get dated" and using "kid" as both noun and verb in "Kid About It".
There's no moon-June-spoon-croon for him, which probably accounted for the slightly older-than-usual audience makeup.
Yet, as Rush drummer Neil Peart once said, you can't put a lot of weight on lyrics in concert. They often don't come through, and so it was last night.
Part of that was due to Costello's slightly thick-toned voice and careless diction. More of it was due to the Attractions, who were in red-hot form and often drowned him out. So the music had to carry the ball, and it carried it more than well.
Costello, whose real name is Declan Patrick MacManus, is the son of a former bandleader. Hence a lot of influences crop up: bounce, jazz, Latin, lounge ballads, torch ballads, blues, just about everything but country and Dixieland.
And he and the Attractions do justice to them all. And let's take a moment to mention the Attractions, because they more than deserve it: drummer Peter Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas (no relation) and fantastic keyboardist Steve Nieve, who carried the biggest load because Costello plays rhythm guitar, not lead.
The ballads were particularly good, which isn't Surprising when you learn that Costello's heroes are such songwriters as Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
There were "Kid About It," highlighted by Nieve's piano work; "Almost Blue"; "Shipbuilding," and "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down."
But it's when Costello and the Attractions rock 'n' roll that the results are the best, and they wasted no time — not even with an introduction — kicking off the concert with "Accidents Will Happen" and "Pidgin English." The immediate comparisons were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Graham Parker without the bouyant barroom flavor of the Rumour.
"King Horse" was hard and fast. "Watching the Detectives" had some of that dance beat that's so popular in England and, thanks to Nieve's organ work, also sounded like the Animals (so did "Pump It Up" during the second encore).
Because Costello introduced so few songs, many rockers fell virtually pell-mell atop each other, as in a six-song segment highlighted by "High Fidelity," "Temptation," "You Belong to Me" and the easier "Alison."
"Elvis" (clap-clap). "Elvis" (clap-clap), went the crowd — you'd have thought it was the "other" (ha-ha) Elvis who'd been performing.
You'd like an encore, folks? You'll get three, all filled with infectiously happy, party-feel rockers like "Red Shoes," the breakneck "Mystery Dance," "Radio Radio," "Peace, Love and Understanding" and rip-snorters "Why Don't You Love Me" and "Pump It Up."
Most marksmen don't wear glasses, but, as Costello sang on "Alison," "My aim is true." It certainly is when it comes to pleasing a crowd.