Q, August 1994

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Nonchalant

Let bygones be bygones, for Elvis Costello & The Attractions are together once more.
Central Park, New York, June 8, 1994

David Cavanagh

Under 80-foot oak parasols in the heat of a New York afternoon, outdoor minors are hugging to Brad Roberts's groovy voice on Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm: so deep it could wobble a squirrel out of its tree at 25 yards. According to o sardonic Elvis Costello, Crash Test Dummies' role on this tour — and he's not a fan — is to babysit the 11 to 15-year-olds in the crowd, at which point the sinister Elv will materialise, signal bedtime from behind nasty specs and proceed to light a bushfire under their folks.

Meanwhile, whoever is in charge of the Central Park ghettoblaster is hinting at one deeply cool sense of humour by following the Dummies' set with the only song that was ever sung deeper: "Wand'rin' Star" by Lee Marvin.

The Central Park SummerStage is two shows into its festival season (the first was by The Neville Brothers the previous week) and by August 7 the inhabitants of the Large Granny Smith will have seen such diverging art spectacles as Booker T. & The MG's; Verdi's Un Giorno De Regno as performed by the New York Grand Opera; The Juliana Hatfield Three; and John Cage's 4'33'' (of silence) "interpreted" by David Tudor and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Tonight, though, there is a steely horn-rim glare. awaiting, for this is the New York return of Elvis Costello & The Attractions, eight long years off the road. In the interim, Costello. has recorded with everyone in the world not previously booked up by Jah Wobble; grinned and presumably borne it as bassist Bruce Thomas's book, The Big Wheel, dished the filth about life on the road with The Attractions in the late '70s and early '80s; written a song — it is alleged — condemning said errant bassist, the very nasty "How To Be Dumb;" and got his worst ever British reviews by daring to front The Rude 5, while sporting a long beard and hard-to-comb hair.

Happily, there is not a beard to be seen as Costello and band amble out on to the SummerStage. The leader, armed with the time-honoured suit and Fender Jazzmaster, has already bullied the crowd out of what he churlishly feels is Dummies-inflicted torpor by subjecting them to a blast of Riot Grrrl pioneerettes Bikini Kill. Both Thomases are enviably slim and clad in T-shirts. Steve Nieve has rarely looked more dapper, his eyes hidden as per by sunglasses.

And the irony is that this massive park event will go down as one of the tour's smaller gigs. About 2200, people are squeezed into an L-shaped space: some are on seating platforms; others kneel on beach towels; but most simply stand and cheer for one of the all-time great rock 'n' roll four-pieces. In Detroit, the crowd numbered 8,000. In Houston, where they hadn't played for 14 years, they pulled 6,000. Tomorrow night in Philadelphia they expect no fewer than 10,000.

And it's all because the ladies seem to love The Attractions, this strangely sacred on-off trio of nonchalant virtuosi who elevate the art of the bar-band to the most thrilling of heights. On bass, looking about 27 and taking care not to look at his fret-board, Bruce Thomas. On drums, already rattling out the breakneck snare rolls of "No Action," Pete Thomas. And on keyboards, preparing for a great evening swapping roles as a demon organist and a flourish-happy concert pianist, Steve Nieve. By the time these gents, and their leader, get round to promoting this year's Brutal Youth album, they've already rekindled the spirits of 1978, 1982 and 1986, excelling on an elongated "Beyond Belief" from Imperial Bedroom.

When we played together all the time," Costello will explain later, "we must have pulled out over 200 songs. Because we hod a lot of covers as well. If you get bored on a tour, you start learning songs that just appeal to you. So together with those and the records, we must have had 250 songs. You'd be surprised — we could pull them out and, over a soundcheck, we'd learn them. After eight years' lay-off, of course, you've pretty much got to re-learn them from scratch."

According to Costello, a week's rehearsal at S.I.R. studios in New York was all it took. Bruce Thomas hadn't played on half of Brutal Youth (Nick Lowe had taken over), so they started rehearsing with "13 Steps Lead Down" and, just for fun, counted out old numbers to see how far they'd get.

"We'd get to the bridge," Costello smiles, "and nobody could remember - including me who wrote it - where it went next."

This frenetic salvo tonight - "The Beat," "Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind?" - isn't even their most dramatic introduction. In fact, this one rates as pretty insidious by their new standards. Give them darkness and a suitably late hour and they'll slam into their set like borderline psychos.

And yet...

Were not bothered about playing as fast as we maybe did in '78," Costello counters. "I mean, we've got people's confidence. They know they want to hear most of what we're going to play."

Switching to acoustic, Costello begins a moody, twilit sequence — New York responds by graciously getting dark, complete with lit-up skyscrapers, circling moths and occasional helicopters zooming overhead — and throws in the first of only a few songs, "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," that The Attractions didn't originally play on.

"I sort of put the general structure of the set list together. Then, when it comes to the options, we tend to go with who's feeling like playing what. There's a few songs that are better known in England from our back catalogue that might make an appearance when we play there. "Oliver's Army" was never known over here. We've only played it once, at Montreal."

A case in point is the set's Mystery Slot, signified by a row of question marks on the set-list. Depending on how well the preceding song, Costello's dangerous ballad "Too Soon To Know," has gone down, it might be "Brilliant Mistake" or "So Like Candy." Tonight, with the entire crowd buzzing, it's Everyday I Write The Book, as originally written, four-square and forceful in the idiom of "Blue Chair."

Back on the electric guitar, Costello lays into "Kinder Murder" and "Clown Strike," the latter an inconsequential jazzy thing off Brutal Youth that tonight suddenly transmutes into something bloody and freakish. Costello has this peculiar mannerism with his guitar, holding it at knee level and bending over it like a lop-sided letter R. It's a bit reminiscent of the initial stages of John McEnroe's serving action.

"You Tripped At Every Step," a song about nightmarish domestic tensions, is intended as the next single, backed with three songs Costello covered for the soundtrack of Roddy Doyle's BBC1 series, The Family. Singing it tonight to trees, skyscrapers and helicopters, he prefaces it with a lengthy rambling spiel about fastening safety-belts and stewardesses on aeroplanes. Despite the prevailing sensation that this is neither the time nor the place for such a heated, intimate number, it chimes out into the L-shape and floors the audience. Here, surely is Elvis Costello singing at his best. Ah, well.

What we don't know is that a bizarre ear condition has left his hearing slightly out of phase, meaning that not only is he feeling the pressure up there, but also he can't relax and appreciate his trusty trio at their own best.

"I enjoyed what I was hearing," he allows, "but every time I tried to lose myself in it, I started to worry because of this phasing between my ears. So I don't know."

You would have had no idea. "Man Out Of Time," a classic song now approaching its teens, was a beautifully ornate Attractions performance, stylish and grand, with the merest of gaps punctuating its close and the tell-tale rumble of "Watching The Detectives." The musicians now appear and re-appear in shadowy light. Very little communal eye contact goes on. Costello only stores directly-and invariably mad-eyed - at the others as songs end. Bruce Thomas only looks at Pete Thomas when he fluffs a bass line, which happens precisely twice. Steve Nieve and the drummer stare at one another now and again, possibly to confirm the curious fact that neither of them seems to have aged since 1980.

"We are getting on pretty good actually," Costello admits with a chuckle. "Tours will go up and down, you know. Some days it's like The Monkees, some days it's like Last Of The Summer Wine depending on how grumpy everybody is. Everybody's more quirky, but maybe you lust notice it more. I think when you get older you're not as selfish, you're not completely on your own trip the whole time. You can actually ask somebody, Hey, how're you doin' today?"

They chose to open the gig with a song from This Year's Model, and it looks like they're intending to close with one too. A wild showstopper slam through "You Belong To Me" sounds like it's not something they could justifiably follow. But then they keep going: "13 Steps Lead Down" segues into "Radio Radio," its punk energy undiminished some] 6 years after it was written.

"I think in some cases we play these songs better than we ever played them," Costello says, with some justification. "In some cases we're playing songs we couldn't kicking play then. "Party Girl" we could never play live. I think we attempted it three times in 1979 and it was always a disaster. The first time we did it (on this tour) the audience was like, My God! Not everybody knows what it is. But one of the things that's really good fun to do is to play the one that nobody thought they would ever hear you play. Even if it only knocks out 20 people in the audience, that makes doing it worthwhile. And it also makes it worthwhile for us because it proves to us that the song was good after all."

Never mind "Party Girl," how many people know "Puppet Girl"? From Wendy James's Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears Babe - an album written by Costello with tongue, everyone assumes, not a million miles from cheek - it's actually a dazzling tune in the honds of The Attractions. Costello dedicates it to "any aspiring pop nymphets out there", just to put the final boot into poor Wendy. And, as only he can, he switches to the other end of the emotional scale for "Alison," notoriously tender and do-right, which he embellishes with excerpts - which seem, momentarily to fox The Attractions - of three lachrymose Smokey Robinson numbers: "Tracks Of My Tears," "Tears Of A Clown" and "No More Tear-Stained Make-Up." To close the second encore, they pull out "Accidents Will Happen," which was the set's opening song for ages when Costello first penned it in 1979.

"We'd like to leave you with this. ." Possibly through sheer perversity, the last song is "All The Rage," from Brutal Youth. A languorous waltz, its valedictory importance rests on its pleading chorus {"say goodbye" - Costello waves good-bye to the crowd) plus its merciful comedown feel after such a frenetic gig.

But of course, that isn't the end. As The Attractions stomp into Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love And Understanding" - the Great Man watches from sidestage - it appears that, rather dramatically, EC & The Attractions may have both the inclination and the repertoire to play all night. There's been no "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," no "I Hope You're Happy Now," no "Uncomplicated," nothing at all from Get Happy!

But, as it happens, even Central Park closes for business. The final song is Pump It Up, Costello bids the Park goodnight by introducing each Attraction in turn and a leisurely exit from the lovely clearing is soon underway.

"Where I'm at now is more like a jazz group," Costello will explain, in all seriousness. "It's a more specialist music that we ploy. There aren't so many people who write songs like I do now as there were when I started. There are some older people that are still doing good stuff, like Neil Young for example. And there are some people that are just cruising along on their reputation."

Talking about Neil Young, had Elvis considered the similarities between The Attractions and Crazy Horse, Young's own fabled, on-off trio?

"I think, with all due respect to Crazy Horse, The Attractions are quite a bit better musicians," he grins.

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Q, No. 95, August 1994


David Cavanagh reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Wednesday, June 8, 1994, Central Park SummerStage, New York.

Images

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Cover and contents page.

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Page scans.

Photos by Ken Sharp.
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