Can you imagine going back in time and telling Elvis Costello, the angry young man, that in two decades he'd be a nostalgia act playing a yuppie winery to an audience that sat on its hands most of the night?
He'd have spat in your face and unleashed a torrent of profanity that would make Eminem proud.
Sorry, Elvis, but that's where you are in 2002. You opened the Mountain Winery season Tuesday night in Saratoga with a show that wasn't bad, but that was at its strongest when you were playing the old hits.
During this hour and 45 minutes, one could really appreciate those old songs, nimbly and tightly played by Costello and his band, the Imposters (Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums, Davey Faragher on bass). Every one had hooks sharp, snappy and smart enough to earn a place in the Big Book of Rock History, right up there with songs by Costello's inspirations, from Buddy Holly to Paul McCartney.
Costello's aim was true at the show's opening, as "No Action" (1978) melted into "Waiting for the End of the World" (1977) and "Watching the Detectives" (1977). The singer-songwriter, 46, burned fast and furiously early in his career, and these songs easily withstand the test of time. Tuesday, they were every bit as fierce and sardonic as ever, with out-of-breath-but-still-smooth vocals, Costello's reggae-tinged guitar tones, the bouncing-off-the-walls energy, the lyrics fans couldn't help but sing along with.
He later added "Alison," "Pump It Up," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" from the same period, all played with small-club high energy.
But laced between were newer songs, mostly from his latest album, When I Was Cruel. Critics are falling all over themselves praising this release as a return to his old form because, unlike his forays into schlocky pop and experimental classical, it kind of rocks in the older style and a lot of the lyrics are on-target subtle and snide.
But let's face it: It doesn't stand up to the earlier work. Too much of it is midtempo and, while some of the rest has energy, the songs lack the unforgettable knockout hooks of the old stuff.
It was sort of like hearing the Rolling Stones' work after 1982 — songs that sound somewhat like the earlier songs, but are you compelled to sing along — or can you, even offhandedly, recall one such tune?
Still, the sold-out crowd loved it, and toward the end they actually took to their feet.
In a place like the winery, you really notice how much the environment and the audience shape a concert. The winery has perfect acoustics and the most appealing view of almost any outdoor venue in the country. But — sorry — most people who pay $75 for a ticket, $32 for a dinner and $10 to park and who sip chablis at a show just don't remember how to rock.
At old Elvis Costello shows, no one ever sat. At Dave Matthews' Shoreline shows over the weekend, people stood for 2½ hours. But at the winery, when people tried dancing during the faster songs, folks behind yelled at them. Most people stayed seated through the frigid night until the encores.
You sit at the movies, you sit at the opera, but if a rock 'n' roll show can't bring you to your feet, stay home and watch your flat panel, high density, equipped with surround sound with eight speakers and a subwoofer TV.
Most of rest of the acts in the venue's tried-and-true season won't be as challenging as Costello and some of the jazz and vocal acts are better seen seated.
But for anyone not driving a Lexus, a performer such as Costello would have worked better in the Fillmore.