PHILADELPHIA — It's hard to believe it's been nearly a decade since Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe became two of the most celebrated talents of New Wave rock virtually overnight — the "virtually" applying most specifically to Lowe, who'd been plugging away for nearly a decade before that, in bands like Brinsley Schwarz. as well as solo.
To many, their names are inextricably linked, in that Lowe functioned as producer on Costello's first six albums, some of which rank as Elvis' finest achievements, at least in terms of sheer sound: production, arrangements, inspired performances.
Since this informal partnership was dissolved — amicably, one presumes — Elvis has consolidated his reputation as one of the premier songwriters of his generation. Still, the absence of the sheer pop listenability which Lowe brought to Costello's music has resulted in a somewhat undistinguished series of albums that draw critical raves for their convoluted wordplay before invariably failing to find a mass audience.
The news that Costello and Lowe were touring together for the first time since the "Stiff Live Stiffs" tour of '78 was, then, cheering: Perhaps Lowe could perk Elvis out of those singer-songwriter doldrums, and at the same time earn some needed exposure.
The tour recently pulled into the Spectrum here to face a surprisingly, large crowd not anywhere near SRO, but demonstrative of the pair's solid following.
Lowe led off with a brief but entertaining set featuring his "Cowboy Outfit," sure shots all: Martin Belmont on guitar, Paul Carrack on keyboards, Bobby Irwin on drums.
Perhaps it was the shortness of the set, maybe the opening-act syndrome, or just the stifling arenalike ambience of the Spectrum, but the band never really caught fire.
As expected, Lowe concentrated on stuff from the new album, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, including his Tex-Mex single "Half a Boy and Half a Man," plus "You'll Never Get Me Up in One of Those" and "Maureen."
The preceding album, the better-than-average The Abominable Showman, was represented by "Raging Eyes" and "Burnin'," with some songs from his best album, Labour of Lust, thrown in for good measure.
Carrack took the limelight for a couple of numbers, including his "How Long (Has This Been Going On)," a Top 10 record for Ace several years ago.
If Lowe and his Outfit provided no screaming excitement, they were a pleasant and professional opener, with the gray-haired Lowe fronting the band in a loose-fitting maroon, er, cowboy outfit — looking something like Jimmy Stewart with rhythm — occasionally upstaged by the manic. Belmont, who injected urgency into the proceedings by wrestling out guitar solos that threatened to go out of control.
Lowe got an excellent response from the crowd, but it was obvious Elvis and his band were the attractions from the moment EC ran onstage in his red shoes and launched into "Let Them All Talk."
El seemed determined to ingratiate himself with an audience that was already won over, and he proceeded to play a more-than-two-hour set of about 28 songs, covering the scope of his career from My Aim Is True to his present long-player, Goodbye Cruel World.
Most of his live renditions lacked fire and intensity, rolled out as they were one after the other with little distinction in the arrangements. But nothing can disappoint keyed-up concertgoers, and Costello had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand from the word go.
It seemed to me that Elvis didn't really get into it until halfway through the set, when he covered the old Byrds tune "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," which, considering its caustic view of the music biz, might have been written by Costello.
The Attractions — Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas on bass, plus a new addition, Gary Barnacle, on sax — have become quite a professional outfit in their years on the road with Costello, able to shift gears on a second's notice.
The only problem with the band is those cocktail-lounge arrangements Elvis has favored lately: The Attractions cover that style so well you might mistake them for lounge lizards. This is rock 'n' roll?
Perhaps not. Elvis has loudly and often proclaimed his interest in getting singers like Frank Sinatra to cover his material, and he seems to be shaping his performances to that style of entertainment.
The problem is, he just doesn't have the chops to put it across. His voice is tiresome — the limited range, the overworked vibrato, that tonelessness — which is another reason why he needs a producer like Lowe, who runs a singer through varied settings and junks up the tediously polished musicianship "The Imposter" has been cultivating since trying to go respectable.
Still, hand it to Elvis for putting out for his fans. Every song got a huge reaction, including "The Greatest Thing," "Mystery Dance," "Shattered Doll," "Girls Talk," "Watching the Detectives," "Shipbuilding," "Everyday I Write the Book," "Alison," and his new single, "The Only Flame in Town."
One complaint: Elvis should ditch the bright spotlights with which he blinds the audience on selected numbers. We get the idea, El, that you're sharing part of the torture performers have to put up with, but it's easy enough to get a headache in the smoke-filled Spectrum without your help.
The spotlights aside, the brightest point in the concert occurred during the third encore. Elvis, accompanied only by himself on guitar, ran through a chilling version of "Peace in our Time," then, joined by the Attractions, followed it up with Lowe's anthemic "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding."
With a jolt, the anger and the desire for change that once made Costello seem so vital was back in place.
And though at first it struck me as corny to hear the crowd sing the line "My aim is true" during "Alison," perhaps that was its way of thanking one performer for having stayed true to his ideals over time. I might quibble over the trajectory his career has taken, but not over his choice of targets.