When Elvis Costello first arrived on the rock 'n' roll scene in 1977, he was the angry young punk rocker who spent his concerts trying to intimidate his audiences. Five years later, he's evolved into a brilliant writer of polished, sophisticated melodies.
Listening to his newest album, Imperial Bedroom, one worried if he'd mellowed a little too much.
But seeing him in concert last night at the Landmark Theater, one realized there was nothing to worry about.
Costello and his band, the Attractions, combined the best of both sides of Elvis — the punk and the polish — for a powerful show that seemed too short at 90 minutes, despite three long encores.
The concert drew heavily from the new album, featuring moody songs like Almost Blue, "Beyond Belief" and "Town Cryer." These songs showcased Elvis' newfound ability to sing like a crooner, as well as the terrific work of Steve Nieve, who is perhaps the best pianist and keyboard man in rock today.
At the same time, Costello took a couple of the ballads and revved them up. "Shabby Doll" exploded into hard rock, accented by the night club/calypso beat that dominated his 1981 album, Trust.
Meanwhile, the inscrutable Elvis Costello seemed to be having himself a good time up on the stage, spinning, duck-walking (well, a little), gesturing with his hands and generally mugging for the audience. It was quite a difference from the 1977 Elvis, the surly, alienated guy. This year's model performs with the passion and showmanship to rival Bruce Springsteen and the Clash's Joe Strummer.
The show reached back to Costello's early albums such as My Aim is True and Armed Forces. Among the songs to remember was "Watching the Detectives," with the band silhouetted against green lighting. The reggae beat was embellished by Nieve's piano fills in the style of "Clubland."
"Clubland" itself was a highlight, with drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas knocking out a salsa beat that meshed perfectly with the piano and guitar.
The three encores — a total of 13 songs — provided a cornucopia of musical styles. There was a punk rock "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do?" taken from his Almost Blue country album. And no, it bore no resemblance to Hank Williams' original.
The hard rock continued with "Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes," "Pump It Up," "Radio, Radio" and Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?" It went back to the slower material with "Beyond Belief" and then ripped through "Mystery Dance," the rave-up rockabilly showcase from the first album.
And, just for good measure, Elvis performed "I Can't Stand Up for Failing Down," the Sam and Dave classic he covered on the Get Happy! LP. This time, Costello slowed it down and gave it a much more soulful treatment, and it was beautiful.
"I'm so afraid of the romance that's been made," Elvis sang in one of his newer songs. But the new Elvis Costello showed he's willing to give romance — and everything else he used to spit on — a try. Last night, he connected with his audience as well as any rock performer can.
Opening the show was Talk Talk, a new Australian band that relies on a synthesizer but no guitars for its sound. This is the latest trend in the United Kingdom, and Talk Talk doesn't seem very different from bands like Kraftwerk or Roxy Music. Except for one song, titled "Talk Talk," the foursome's tunes tended to sound alike.