The last tickets were sold during the opening act, but Elvis Costello overwhelmed a sea of (mostly) devoted fans in the gym last Saturday night. Any speculation about whether or not Elvis could carry off a solo show — no Attractions, just him in the gym with a guitar and piano — was laid to rest early on in the ninety minute set.
The problem of commanding all that space — packed to capacity or not — has flawed any number of gym shows, including Cyndi Lauper, the Stray Cats, and any opening act you care to mention. T-Bone Burnett seemed a little ill at ease, and wasn't helped out by an audience largely unfamiliar with his music. Anyone who did tune in (not the people next to and behind me, who had important grad school and GPA info to discuss) felt the intensity of Burnett's lyrics. "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" is a dynamite song and worked an unnoticed magic, floating out live over WUSB and a talkative house.
Elvis thundered. Filled every inch of space with sound. Politicked. Communicated. Cast a spell. And I'm not even a real Elvis Costello freak. The visual effect itself of him alone on stage, dark suit against light stage, dark speakers and piano, created a mood of stark expression that was defined through his passionate delivery. One man alone on stage with guitar and piano, picked out by red and white spots, commanded — demanded — attention with a tone of quiet urgency. Stripped of everything but a bare accompaniment, the lyrics vibrated with biting social criticism and emotion. Costello has always been a master of the perfect cutting phrase, and his success endures through his ability to combine blunt statements with terrific pop melodies plus his obvious sincerity. Hypocrisy is not one of Elvis' problems.
All the intensity of superb lyrics, a distinctive voice, stage presence, and great music didn't mean things were desperately serious. A little tongue-in-cheek salute to Billy Joel, as well as a serious one to Bob Dylan kept the atmosphere from becoming too devotional. Musically, Costello touched on everything from old familiars "Girl Talk," "Green Shirt," and "Accident's Will Happen" to upcoming material — "Worthless Thing" was particularly pointed and critical.
With all this amazing stuff — music, words, meaning, presence — everyone's attention was rivetted on the stage, right? Well, actually, no. The grad school people talked through most of Elvis, too. I'm not a librarian with respect to noise, but hey, the people who paid cash to see the show were a hell of a lot more attentive.
Three encores pulled out more new material plus crowd pleasers "Allison" and "Everyday I Write the Book" The sound was excellent — loud, defined — and not damaging to the ears, so that Costello's phrases floated in the darkness highlighted by the silence surrounding his delivery. The angry young is older and more successful, but he is still demanding truth and authenticity from the less than perfect world.