The caustic crest of pop music's "new wave" washed through the Tampa Jai-Alai fronton Sunday night splashing some 900 fans and 3,300 empty seats with tough, unembellished basic rock 'n' roll.
Presumably because American mass audiences have not distinguished "new wave" from "punk rock," only an alert minority of local followers bothered to catch the Suncoast triple debut of Elvis Costello, Mink DeVille and Nick Lowe. So-called experts — progressive rock deejays, critics and at least one disappointed staffer from Beach Club, the promoting company — asked each other the same question: "Where is everybody?" (The same show fared little better in Orlando on Saturday, drawing only 1,100 customers.)
Once again: Elvis Costello is NOT a punk-rocker. Nor is Willy DeVille, leader of Mink DeVille (the sole American band on the program). And Nick Lowe, for goodness sake, has been making rock records for years. A charter member of Brinsley Schwarz, Lowe has produced albums for Graham Parker, Dr. Feelgood and (surprise) Elvis Costello himself.
Show-opener Lowe set the pure, unpolished tone of the evening, punching out a solid half-hour of quickie tunes from his first solo LP Pure Pop for Now People. Joining bassist Lowe and sharing singing honors was none other than Dave Edmunds, a minor British luminary. Although Lowe claims to be an exponent of "pop," his Sunday set concentrated only on the more unrefined aspects of his work. But energetic cohesion made the powerful chords ring true, and the set passed too quickly. DeVille failed to surpass Lowe's level of inspiration, possibly because his attempts to unite a six-member backup band were lost in electronic mud. Like Lowe, DeVille concentrated on hard-charging material. His near-hit single, "Mixed-Up Shook-Up Girl," churned with a fiery throb far beyond the gentle sway of the recorded version. Perhaps DeVille, too, simply wanted to hurry up and go — the 30-minute set included a hopped-up "Cadillac Walk" that could have cruised at a more comfortable speed.
Two years ago, Declan Patrick McManus had a wife, a kid, horn-rimmed spectacles and a job programing computers in England. He kept the family, but dropped his old job and old name. Elvis Costello was born.
Unfortunately, the first Costello LP was buried in record stores, heaped in the "punk rock" bin with the Stranglers, the Damned, the Clash and the Sex Pistols. The year's greatest collection of original tunes languished in these pits, and Costello proved unable (or unwilling) to meet the public and explain himself in understandable terms. (A miserably uncoordinated guest shot on Saturday Night Live didn't help, either.)
But the loyal Costello-ites were rewarded for their faith. Dark-haired Elvis, looking healthier and more "normal" than album photos suggest, hit the fronton stage at full tilt, blasting into "Mystery Dance" and "Pump It Up" in satisfyingly short order. With almost no conversation between brief (two to three-minute) tunes, Costello and his no-frills backup trio, The Attractions, charged through 14 songs in 40 minutes.
Classic Costello — "Red Shoes," "Less Than Zero," "Miracle Man" and the touching "Alison" — thrilled those in the crowd who had spun the first platter hundreds of times since its release last year. And his hot new tunes such as "Lipstick Vogue" and "Radio Radio" showed that the second album will receive the same abuse from admirers of Costello's crisp melodies and manic lyrics.
Costello addressed the small crowd only once: "Thanks for coming," he mumbled. "Tell your friends about us, because when we come back I want to see this place full!"
Whether piqued at the tiny turnout or just following the showbiz credo of "leave 'em wanting more," Costello ignored encore pleas after his brief but highly charged performance.
Suncoast rock fans obviously don't know it yet, but super-long hair, super-long droning solos and super-glittery nonsense are on the way out. Three-minute tunes with hard, catchy melodies ride the new wave in pop music. A lot of folks missed a glimpse of that future Sunday night.