It's almost impossible for a rock poet to stay angry for a whole career. Bob Dylan turned Christian. John Lennon married and became aimless, Pete Townshend went through addictions and decided on fashion, and now Elvis Costello, THE angry young man has turned into a commercial hitmaker.
Surprisingly, Costello's turn towards tune and melody has made him a much stronger live performer. The voice, the intensity... the attitude. They all came through full-throttle at Costello's recent Berkeley appearance.
Costello's charm and wit, so evident on vinyl, and frequently absent from live shows, was on display. Replacing his old anger was a new found charm and confidence.
He was neither cool nor condescending, smiling from the start, and loosening up enough to dance a little jig at the end. His latest album Punch the Clock is a warm and rich commentary, rife with Costello's usual little ironies and charms. These songs sounded very full, augmented by a four piece horn section, and two wrinkled and authentic gospel singers.
"Everyday I Write the Book," one of his seven encore tunes, was beautiful and precise.
"T.K.O. (Boxing Day)" combined the fat Stax soul sound and Elvis' gruff, nasal vocals to recreate the Philly sound. A difficult endeavor for an Englishman, indeed. The song became an instant concert classic.
Elvis played only one song off his classic Armed Forces: "Watching the Detectives," neither a rocker nor ballad, but more of salty whodunit set to modern music. Watch as Elvis becomes Mr. Storyteller, crouching and grimacing, gently wiping the lenses of his pink plastic-rimmed glasses.
Elvis' band, the merry bunch of Attractions, lent their usual expertise and charm. Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass, and Peter Thomas on drums rarely saw the spotlight or center stage. The Attractions understand the legend status of their boss, which is commendable.
The biggest treats of the evening were Costello's renditions of The English Beat's "Stand Down Margaret," and a spirited but abbreviated version of "Friday On My Mind."
Other standouts included "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," and "Alison," from his first masterpiece, 1977's My Aim Is True.
The night's climax came during "Pump It Up," Elvoid's last song, and the most powerful in a show full of power and anger.
The anger was there, if only for a brief flash.
But the dancing new-wavers in front of the stage were painfully middle-class and middle-of-the-road, and probably more concerned with appearances than in Mr. Costello's sudden anger.
Thankfully, Elvis' acute network of perception wasn't working, and the fan's trendy indifference didn't faze him.
The Evolution of Elvis Costello seems complete: The entertainer has caught up with the poet, and the vocals grant justice to the lyrics. The anger? It's still there, but you can only expect a glimpse here, a peek there. I suppose one should be thankful for even that.