CHICAGO — Neil Young and Elvis Costello are two of rock's most unpredictable and uncompromising — if not perverse — talents. Both have surprising new albums, and both are on tour across the country, with shows that bring touches of innovation to jaded rock audiences.
Young recently performed at Rosemont Horizon with his on-again, off-again backing band since '69, Crazy Horse. Costello is touring with three different shows, and two different bands — the Confederates, made of musicians including guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff, who played on his King of America LP, and his longtime collaborators — the Attractions.
Costello's first show consisted of material from King of America released earlier this year, and the final night has offered songs from the new Blood & Chocolate. The middle evening of the engagement featured the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" a wheel of fortune listing the titles of 40 of Costello's songs plus a few oldies like "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey" and "Leave My Kitten Alone."
Young and Crazy Horse, billed as the "3rd Best Garage Band in the World" alternated hard rock with acoustic numbers, on a set designed like a huge garage, complete with roadies dressed in mouse suits, prop spiders and radio controlled "bugs" that scuttle across the stage during the set.
Bouncing across the stage with berserk energy, Young began with "Cinnamon Girl" and then switched back and forth from rockers like "Cortez The Killer" to his gentler acoustic songs like "After The Gold Rush." Highlights included "Like A Hurricane" and "Down By The River" along with the hit "Heart of Gold."
Young included several songs from his "hi-tech" album Trans and Crazy Horse did a more than competent job on the material from Young's new Landing On Water fusing new wave synths, rock rhythms, and Young's raw guitar into an awesome wall of sound.
Near the end of the show, an "angry neighbor" came on stage to complain — and after the encore — the "boys in blue" arrive to take Neil and the band "downtown." And the garage door rolls down. The theatrics — though very loosely performed added some crowd-pleasing comedy to an otherwise straight ahead concert performance.
Costello opened his vaudeville-style show with "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and "Loveable" before explaining the "Spinning Songbook" and asking for audience cooperation. Among the songs that followed in the wheel's selections were "Less Than Zero" and "Alison," (when that turned out to be the name of the young woman chosen to spin the wheel). When the band took a break, a surprisingly comfortable Costello held forth alone with his Fender Jaguar for solo versions of "The Only Flame In Town" and "Inch By Inch" from Goodbye Cruel World.
The jovial Costello, introduced himself as new alter-ego "Napoleon Dynamite," (apparently his answer to his identity crisis) and his band (Pete Thomas, drums; Bruce Thomas, bass; and Steve Nieve, keyboards) as "The Greatest Band In The World," making it look like their collaboration will continue for the foreseeable future. The group then tore through a final set that included chestnuts "Beyond Belief," "No Action," and "The Beat," encoring with "Radio, Radio" and "Pump It Up/Twist and Shout."
The past year has been one of divergence for Costello's career. When King of America was released Costello was quoted as saying he would be returning to his "real" name Declan MacManus. This summer he released a lackluster duet with Jimmy Cliff, again playing with the Attractions, and then reunited with his early producer Nick Lowe for Blood & Chocolate.
That album, and Young's Landing On Water reflect stylistic changes in each musicians' work. Costello's album returns to his paradoxically appealing "anti-pop," from the abrasive and discordant "Uncomplicated," to the strangely sweet, sarcastic self pity of "Poor Napoleon": "You can take the truthful things you've said to me and put them on the head of a pin."
Young takes the assorted strengths of his past several lps, ranging from the synths of Trans, the rockabilly of Everybody's Rockin' and the country of Old Ways, and emerges with the state of the art hard rock sound of Landing On Water. Working with Danny Kortchmar (who co-produced Don Henley's Building The Perfect Beast) Young and drummer Steve Jordan, have created a modern sounding record that retains the appeal of earlier albums, like Zuma and Rust Never Sleeps.
Young speaks metaphorically about his past in the haunting "Hippie Dream": "Cause the tie-dye sails / are the screamin' sheets / and the dusty trail / leads to blood in the streets / and the wooden ships are a hippie dream / capsized in excess / if you know what I mean."
Personality and politics collide on this album, with the gritty realities of "People On The Street'" ("need a place to go"). Juxtaposed with the cultural despair of "Pressure": "that's why you need max head room / too much pressure for peace on earth / too much trying to get your money's worth."
Since his beginnings in Buffalo Springfield in the '60s through the albums with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Crazy Horse and others, Neil Young has always recorded the music he wanted to with little regard for commercial considerations. That, and his recent work with "Farm-Aid" and other charities have earned him respect for his integrity and commitment, if not the multi-platinum sales of some less talented artists.
Costello, on the other hand, has seemed to veer from near-success to commercial contempt at regular intervals. Blood & Chocolate is in turns, melodic and menacing, soothing and sardonic. While there are a wealth of textures and tempos to be relished by listeners, this album, like his 13 preceding is not likely to bring him the wild acclaim In the U.S. that would match his accomplishments in his native England. Perhaps he speaks of his career in "Battered Old Bird" from side two: "Well Here's a boy if ever there was / who's going to do big things / that's what they all say — and that's how the trouble begins."