In Thucydides' The Peloponesian War, Pericles says that the problem with giving funeral orations is that those who never knew the loved one will say that no one could be worth the praise you offer, while those who did know the dearly departed will contend that you did not do him justice. That's just the problem with reviewing Elvis Costello's concert in Berkeley Friday night.
Those of you who missed the show will think that it couldn't be as good as I claim it was, while those of you who saw it will say it was even better.
Rock and roll's militant Woody Allen was in fine form Friday night. He rocked and balladeered through an incredible selection of his caustic and painful variety of music.
Backed by the T.K.O. Horns and Afrodiziak, Elvis and the Attractions kicked off the two-and-a-hour set with a rollicking version of "Let Them All Talk."
After the opener, Elvis informed the crowd that he would be playing songs from both his latest release Punch The Clock and from his six previous albums. This announcement had to be a bit of a relief for fans who had seen Elvis play Berkeley last year when he performed songs from his then-current album Imperial Bedroom.
The music from Imperial Bedroom is music for listening, not for dancing, and his 1982 concert suffered for it. But Elvis's new tunes — "Let Them All Talk," "T.K.0.," and "Everyday I Write The Book," among others — are the kind of songs that still carry Costello's painful messages and cutting remarks, but do so in a more rock-and-roll framework.
When Elvis did pull out numbers from Imperial Bedroom, he met with mixed success. "Man Out of Time" was a high point of the concert. "Shabby Doll" wasn't.
But there can be no complaints about Elvis's treatment of his older numbers. With the T.K.O. horns playing a variation on every T.V. detective theme you've ever heard and Afrodiziak providing some spooky vocals, "Watching The Detectives" took on a whole new power.
The horn section provided a new fullness and drive to the Attractions' sound, but the Attractions are still the key to Costello's concert sound. I'm not sure how they do it; no one plays rhythm. The drummer bopped in and out through all the songs, never bothering to hold down a beat. The bassist played along with the melody. World's funkiest keyboardist Steve Nieve just threw in a few notes or some low-key banging whenever it seemed to fit. And Elvis only plays guitar sporadically. But it all works out. Amazing.
And if the music is amazing, Elvis is just plain incredible.
Costello is the only performer around with songs that make tor good reading as well as good listening. No one in music today can turn a phrase like this angry young man:
"I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused."
"I said I'm so happy I could die. She said drop dead and left with another guy."
"Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?"
"We could sit like lovers, staring in each other's eyes, but the magic of the moment might become too much for you."
You get the feeling that in his 28 years Elvis has had more garbage dumped on him than most people. And when he writes and sings about his troubles, its not in the puresap "Lovin, Touchin, Squeezin" style. Elvis takes a sense of humor into his songs, and that showed through in the concert Friday night. After he introduced "The World and his Wife" as a "rancid story of family life," the crowd chuckled. But, he warned, "What are you laughing at? It could he your own." He introduced "Red Shoes" as "A Stray Cats number called 'Pink Pedal Pushers'" and "Alison" as "a song called 'Torn Between Two Lovers.'"
But the highest point of the evening of high points had to be Elvis's political set. After "What's so funny about Peace, Love and Understanding," he dedicated "Shipbuilding," a song about a shipbuilder's son who dies in the Falklands War, to those who didn't understand the sentiment of "What's so funny." Next came a jivey remake of the English Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" which became "Stand Down Ronnie" in Elvis's hand. Later in the set Elvis stood alone at center stage and sang a new song knocking religion and government.
All through the concert, Elvis at least gave the impression that he means what he says. Whether he sings about another lost love or World War III doesn't really matter. What matters is that he means it. And it shows.
And that's what makes Elvis king.