Pier 84 is way off on Manhattan's west side and it really is a pier, sitting out on the edge of the Hudson. They've built a stage, found room for about 8,000 people and it's a pleasant — if fairly impersonal — space for outdoor concerts, with an aircraft carrier looming ominously next door.
Costello's polite but partisan audience isn't there to see Aztec Camera, so they go mostly ignored, which is a shame since their largely acoustic, tender yet persuasive pop is perfect for the warm summer evening. Aztec Camera's strengths are in their charm, their emotional honesty and their stunning melodic sensibility; over and over again, they rope you in with some bright, soaring chorus, some incredibly accurate observation about loss, longing and resignation, and on top of all this they've got Roddy Frame standing front and centre.
The spiky-haired flannel-shirted troubadour is a true personality, and a warm and talented one at that — and Frame hasn't learned to act yet. He's as natural as can be, projecting a mixture of wit, precociousness and adorable humility.
Frame and Aztec Camera are modern romantics in the true sense of the word. When's the last time a catalogue of love songs have been so direct, so embraceable? The powerfully seductive, nimble, flamenco-laced pop that Frame and cohorts Craig Gannon (rhythm guitar — restrained to the point of not playing for a large part of the set), Dave Ruffy (drums) and Campell Owens (bass) play is equally as honest and fresh.
Aztec Camera are a perfect yet clearly subordinate compliment to Frame's glorious, textured, chiming pop vision, though one could easily choose to be distracted by the legendary Dave Ruffy: so few drummers are this adept, this much in command of their kit, this inventive, this capable of using the traps as a true musical instrument. His fluid and patient playing has given Aztec Camera the room to develop the quirkless pop inherent in Frame's flawless, seamless songs.
If this sounds like a rave, well, it is. Bands like Aztec Camera, REM, Big Country and the Go Betweens extend the life of pop rock indefinitely by plugging it with honest emotion and a new yet wholly accessible approach to the pop group sound.
Aztec Camera are subtle, honest, natural, are greeted by mild applause, and are a striking contrast to the overwhelming Elvis Costello Show.
These days, Costello has become The Entertainer, a glossy, contrived, high-spirited new wave Sinatra. He knows what he's doing, he has the bright, simple and well-arranged material to do it with, and he does it well, as long as you don't mind a complete absence of spontaneity, genuine emotion or any sort of on-stage honesty.
Six years of working the States has eroded any real friction or tension in Costello's stage work: it's just a Big Act, a Big Show and he's pretty good at it — very good, actually. I'm not particularly taken in by Costello's new age MOR, but it's pleasant enough. He is a fairly gifted stylist and arranger, as all easily palatable performers must be, and his sense of visual style and co-ordination would seem to be as adept as his musical one.
But you can see right through Elvis. He's just a bright and powerfully rehearsed performer, his emotions (probably real and valid enough at the time he wrote any of the many songs he throws out in rapid yet careful order at the Pier crowd) on stage are carefully deliberated and plugged in; they read well under the bright lights and from a distance, but they are transparent, easily summoned and dispensed each night of this long American tour.
How different from Aztec Camera's unpretentiousness and natural performance/ Costello is tight, good, attractive, and quite boring. He has the Eighties performance style down perfectly and his music is a fine contemporary synthesis of familiar influences and acceptable pseudo-modernism.
As a colourful and unspontaneous actor, he is to this decade what Springsteen's mechanical athletics were to the last. He should be dishing it out for a long time.