MINNEAPOLIS — "Oh I just don't know where to begin."
So, instead of thinking about it, Elvis Costello simply charged in Friday night, blasting out a 30-song, 90-minute set that had the balcony shaking in Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus.
Costello and his band, The Attractions, were in Minneapolis as part of his 1981 "English Mugs Tour," which began on the West Coast and is working its way east. The stop was his first Minneapolis appearance in two years. coming a few weeks before the release of his sixth album, Trust.
Yet, unlike the average rock group, Costello didn't dwell on the new material or hype the upcoming release. He did offer a half-dozen new songs, dropping them into a set that included material from all of his other albums, as well several unpredictable offerings by other writers.
But then, Costello is nothing if not unpredictable. He sprang upon the scene in 1977 with a name that combined images of a movie comic and a rock star and a sound that defined the vital urgency of the new wave rock movement. Since then, he has been increasingly prolific and equally enigmatic, releasing four albums between early 1978 and mid-1980 and granting interviews to no one.
His music speaks for him, and what it reveals is a personality that is both hopelessly romantic and incurably cynical. Costello's songs, which snap and sting with barely contained hostility, picture an eternal idealist bent on revenge against the violators of those ideals.
There is also a strain of masochism in the lyrics, a sense that Costello will take the pain if there is a chance for requited affection; "I don't want to be your lover / I just want to be your victim," he sings in "The Beat."
On record, Costello is irresistible; in person, he simply can't be contained. Friday he leaned into the microphone as though fatally attracted to it, a helpless piece of metal fighting a magnet. His face took on bitter shadows in songs like "Clowntime is Over," which he sang in a slowed-down, snarling syncopation: "Everybody's hiding under covers / Who's making lover's lane / Safe again for lovers?" he sang, biting off each syllable. If there was an answer to his musical question, it wasn't the vengeance-bent Elvis, who is more interested in creating danger than eliminating it.
He offered a brief paean to his namesake, introducing "Little Sister" by noting that he was about to sing a tune "by a young singer from Tupelo, Miss." But, where Elvis Presley's version of the song was a plea, Costello's rendition was a threat.
The rest of the songs spanned Costello's brief career, running from "Alison" from his first album, through "Big Cheese" from his most recent, Taking Liberties. He touched on the liveliest and most scathing tunes from in between, including "Hand in Hand," "Radio Radio," "You Belong to Me" and the encores of "Watching the Detectives," "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and "Pump It Up."
Costello varied the pace, however, alternating between buzzsaw rock and pleading ballads. He even delved into country-western, singing heartfelt versions of "(I've Got the Picture) He's Got You" and Tammy Wynette's "Too Far Gone." He further tipped his hat to other artists by interpolating a verse of Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster (Jammin')" into the reggae of "Watching the Detectives."
Propulsive, compulsive, explosive: Each equally describes Costello's music. It was played Friday with lockstep precision by The Attractions, led by indefatigable drummer Pete Travis and keyboard jack-in-the-box Steve Naive. Naive in particular adds texture to Costello's songs, whether he's rippling through surprisingly authentic country-western stylings or pounding out ripe, shrieking chords on his Farfisa. Travis plays brittle, brash drums, creating a variety of complex, impulsive rhythm patterns that never duplicate themselves.
"Some things you never get used to," Costello sang in "High Fidelity" and he was right. His music cannot be taken for granted or ignored. Costello remains one of the most vital and invigorating artists in rock today, challenging convention and defying the odds to render rock 'n' roll as something new and exciting. His concert Friday was a testament to his stature as one of rock's most alarmingly energetic performers.