Elvis Costello has turned in his sneakers for alligator shoes. They're still red, of course, and now, more than ever, the angels would like to be wearing them. Currently storming the sales charts atop a musically and popularly successful album, Punch The Clock, with the single "Everyday I Write The Book" at #45 with a bullet (as a proud Elvis announced from the stage Sunday), Elvis can now take the time to acknowledge the cheers, instead of fighting them. Having nearly sold out two dates at the Universal Ampitheatre to receptive, adoring audiences, Costello is finally more than just a critic's magic password.
So Costello's recent L.A. appearance was both a celebration and a contented sigh. Onstage, Elvis appeared even more at home than during last year's Imperial Bedroom tour, exuding a suave, confident stage manner, teasingly shrugging his shoulders in mock disbelief at the crowd's sometimes overeager admiration. It was almost as if Costello was set back by the sudden show of love from the audience. During "Everyday I Write The Book," a fair-sized crowd who had by then rushed to the front of the stage, even counted out the chapters as Costello sang them, holding up their fingers from one to six.
This playfulness seeped into Costello's performance as well. Introducing a song called "Pink Pedal Pushers," Costello launched into an amused reading of "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," free of the explosive anger of the original. Later, he chugged into a version of The English Beat's "Stand Up Margaret," only to change the lyric halfway through to "Stand Up Ronnie."
Costello's live demeanor, however leans towards stagey theatrics. Many of the songs Elvis treated more like dramatic soliloquies, stretching out notes with a sometimes overblown sense of drama. While it was encouraging to see this openness (for he is potentially one of the greatest vocalists of the past few years), Costello sometimes drew out certain lines near the point of self-parody.
Generally, though, Costello's theatrics worked wonders for the show, particularly in terms of the stage setting. The set, a series of tall translucent flats hung from the ceiling at the sides of the stage, brought an vibrantly visual immediacy to Costello's show. Used almost like neon wallpaper, the screens blazed colors from lights shone through the screens from behind — an elementary video screen, if you will. For instance, during "Shipbuilding," a black and white criss cross pattern projected on the screens, highlighting the stark imagery of the song with a sharp, cutting directness.
Indeed, embellishment seemed to be the keynote here, especially in light of Punch The Clock's long list of guest musicians. They've all followed Costello to the stage. As on the album, The Attractions (superb as always) were joined by The TKO Horns and the vocal duo Afrodiziak. The added players layered an almost orchestral depth to much of Costello's music, giving the evening the feel of an old '60s Stax soul revue. Costello himself, strumming his guitar like Buddy Holly, wailing into the microphone like Joe Cocker, or snapping his fingers like Frank Sinatra, played the part of the featured soloist and bandleader, deftly entertaining the crowd for a fun and satisfying two hours. Welcome to the center ring, Elvis.
Aztec Camera, who opened the show, proved almost as promising as the advance hoopla has claimed. Aztec Camera has all the bravado of a lighter, almost acoustic U2, with a fresh, although not quite polished performer in 19-year-old lead vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Roddy Frame. They also have a bizarre knack for changing tempos at a sometimes distractingly whipcrack intensity. Frame's passionate guitar playing, however, was nothing short of outstanding. His solos ripped out some of the most barnburning moments of the whole evening.