Rock and roll was founded on alienation, originally the alienation of the young from the older. Now in full maturity, rock and roll is still based on alienation: the young from the younger, the trendy from the square.
The later seventies were a bad time for good rock and roll. Just when it seemed to be caught in the grip of some flabby middle age decline there appeared an incredibly gawky young man, bursting on the scene with one of the best debut albums in history. He established himself as an instant pop icon, ballsy enough to parody the royalty of rock and roll and talented enough to create songs that stuck in the listener's head the way the best pop does. Not only that, but his lyrics were so bitterly spiteful, so alienated, so true. Since then he has assembled a distinguished, though less pointed, body of work.
Elvis Costello has come quite a distance, all the way to the RIT Frank Ritter Ice Arena last Friday evening, by himself, just a singer with his angst. The majority of the crowded audience loved his performance, strictures and all. Before the show began, CAB Concert Director David Lloyd was obliged to inform the audience that Elvis had requested no one walk around during the show. With that, he introduced the opening singer, T-Bone Burnett.
An excellent choice for this show, T-Bone's performance foreshadowed Elvis' in style and content. If the popular consciousness still thought in terms of Dylanesque, T-Bone would he pegged; an artful song-crafter, his mournful ballads were rasped out with only his acoustic guitar for accompaniment. The audience accepted him respectfully and he left the stage.
The main attraction jogged out wearing a dark suit and red, red shoes. He began, laying out one heartfelt blues after another, alternating instruments between acoustic and electric guitars and acoustic and electric pianos. The decidedly personal tenor of the show carried through all of his songs, "Almost Blue" being the norm instead of the mournful exception.
A measure of dumb, blind irony was achieved with someone in the audience commenting that "he sounds like Ray Charles." Indeed, this was the man at his most idiosyncratic, and that in the end is how the show must be judged, on a personal basis. Those who stayed away because they did not expect rock and roll from a solo performer were right. Some of those attending came away unsatisfied, feeling that without the upbeat rock and roll veneer his songs went from incisive to merely sarcastic. Others, and these people were in the majority, were greatly affected by the show: "masterful," they said.
An artist who takes chances in pursuing his muse is likely to miss the mass popular bull's-eye on occasion. By going his own way Elvis has avoided any "stale cheese" syndrome, though in his apparent delight with the audience's adoring reaction he appears to have fallen prey to a mutual artist/ audience emotional fascism. It is good that the man has found loving acceptance. Some in the crowd were alienated, that's all.