David Lee Roth, the off-and-on lead singer for Van Halen, has long held a theory as to why rock critics prefer Elvis Costello over bands like his. Rock critics, he once said, love Costello because they look like that geeky, bespectacled singer. Just try to find a critic who resembles the pretty-boy beefcakes fronting Roth's band.
OK, David: Touche. You've got a point. But looks aside, Costello has some things going for him that you don't. For starters, he can sing.
And he writes intelligent lyrics.
And he can craft complex songs in any style he chooses.
And he's a seemingly endless fount of gorgeous melodies and irresistible hooks, having written more than 300 songs so far.
In short, Dave, he's a genius. And as if that weren't enough, Friday night at the Greek Theatre Costello and his band, The Attractions, proved they can out-rock your band any day.
Fans who have heard Costello's new album, All This Useless Beauty, might have expected a show that reflected its general mellow moodiness. Hardly. From the very first number, "Man Out of Time," the musicians gripped the attention of the packed amphitheater with a string of tight, flawless, hard-driving numbers.
Costello and his band share with The Pretenders an ability to create an amazingly strong rock groove without relying just on volume. The power comes from the sheer intensity of the musicianship. Songs like "Pump It Up," which the band unleashed toward the end of the show, force an audience to its dancing feet not through fireworks but through skillful songwriting brought to life by a band that burns like a concentrated flame.
There were plenty of gentle moments in the concert as well. Costello devoted the middle section of the show to ballads that featured just him, on acoustic guitar, playing duets with keyboardist Steve Nieve on grand piano. It was meant as a break from what Costello jokingly referred to as "that crazy bongo music that we love so much."
Particularly moving during this part of the show were "Love Field" and Costello's version of the standard "My Funny Valentine," during both of which the proverbial dropped pin would have made a deafening sound.
While the unplugged sound of these songs revealed Costello's limitations as a guitarist — no fancy player, he mostly bangs out competent chords without much grace or dynamic variation — it also showcased the beauty of his voice.
The nerdy, nasal, strangled quality to Costello's singing is a hard-to-acquire taste. But once you get used to it, you discover one of the most affecting voices in popular music. His range is majestic, swooping down to satiny, resonant lows and up to fragile, shimmering highs. Listening to Costello sing one of his classic ballads, like "Alison," or one of his more recent ones, such as "The Other End of the Telescope," can break your heart. He sang both songs Friday night, leaving the Greek littered with cardiac shards.
And speaking of breaking hearts, Costello has suggested lately that this tour may be his last, and that he might retire from recording as well.
Obsessive fans, the kind who study every one of his lyrics for their deep meanings, may have been bracing themselves for this news after listening to Costello's new album. It closes with the song "I Want to Vanish," which contains the lines "I want to vanish / This is my last request / I've given you the awful truth / Now give me my rest." Friday night, Costello came out for a second encore to sing that song. Uh-oh.
But then the full band joined Costello for three more songs, including the hard-stomping "Shallow Grave" from the new album. The song, written with Paul McCartney, sounds like the crazed love-child of the Stray Cats and Tom Waits. It's brash, quirky and very much alive. And so is Costello. It's hard to imagine he'll he leaving us any time soon.