UC Santa Barbara Daily Nexus, February 22, 1979

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An enigmatic Elvis pumps it up
too little and too late

Kevin MacKinnon

If nothing else, Elvis Costello's concert last Saturday night at the Arlington Theatre solidified his reputation as one of New Wave's most innovative and imaginative performers; that is, when he decides to perform. When Elvis and his band, the Attractions, finally got down to business half-way through their brief, fifty minute set, they gave the sold-out house a dose of rock and roll which had them up on their feet and dancing in the aisles, but which ultimately left them disappointed and more than a little confused.

When the house lights came up for good, the crowd kept yelling for a good fifteen minutes more, even as the roadies were dismantling the stage. But it was hard to tell whether they were cheering for the performance already given, or if they really believed that they could get Elvis to come out again. When the audience realized that he was really gone for good, their hopes turned first to disbelief, then disillusionment, and finally resentment that Elvis had, in the end, delivered so little.

More than possibly any other New Wave performer, Elvis Costello has achieved a high degree of success while still retaining the energy and bite essential for good rock and roll. Combining a thorough understanding of the intricacies of rock with emotional, almost painfully honest lyrics, the songs of the former computer technician from Liverpool are full of conviction that makes for classic rock singles. Unfortunately, Elvis showed little of the energy and intensity of his albums in his Arlington performance.

Instead, the singer-guitarist gave a performance that was strangely unsettling in that it left as many questions unanswered as it did answered. When the one and only encore was finished, Elvis Costello remained just as much an enigma as when the concert started, perhaps even more so. While this is probably how he wanted it anyway, it did little in the way of earning him any new fans, and disenchanted quite a few old ones as well.

But this identity crisis aside, Elvis' performance itself was a series of puzzling and often frustrating contradictions. On the one hand, we had Elvis the rock and roller; the angry, unpredictable, neurotic; a possibly dangerous, definitely exciting performer whose biggest asset was, as always, his painfully exposed angst. On the other, there was Elvis the cool professional, on a largely sold-out tour following the release of his third and most successful album to date, Armed Forces, which has hit the national top 20 without the benefit of a hit single. Throughout the first part of his set, Elvis appeared to be caught in a tug-of-war between these two extremes, especially during the opening string of songs.

Taking both the stage and his opening numbers, "Goon Squad," "Opportunity" and "Oliver's Army," at a run, Elvis seemed to promise a repeat of the pattern he established at Robertson Gym last year. Then, he ran one song into another without a break, thus sacrificing the in-between song applause in favor of keeping the concert at an audience-draining fever high pitch. But Saturday night, Elvis would sometimes stop between songs not only for applause, but to say things like, "How are you doing tonight?" and to introduce Nick Lowe's song, "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" as "my new single." This idle pattern was completely out of place given the vengeful, intense nature of the songs, and is even more shocking considering that this is the man who wrote the scathing record-radio industry attack, "Radio Radio," a song he not inappropriately left out of his performance. By choosing this more relaxed approach, Elvis caused the show to lose momentum that it never fully regained.

Luckily, this self-defeating dichotomy of styles was not permanent, as Elvis at last began to flex his muscles a bit and put on the kind of performance which did justice to his material. As a whole, the concert consisted of one song from his first album, five from his second, eight from his newest, and one new, as yet unreleased song. It was these songs from Armed Forces which proved the biggest surprise, and also showed Elvis' true concert potential.

Performed live, the new songs were transformed into powerful, emotional declarations, much more so than on record. "Big Boys" especially was an inspired performance, with the singer's sarcastic and cloying vocals making the sardonic lyrics all the more meaningful. In contrast, "Party Girl" was as honest and sincere a rendition as I've ever heard Elvis give, with each word slowed down and drawn out in the most painfully candid vocal of the evening.

Musically, Elvis and his backing band were excellent. Despite a rather muddy and inadequate sound system, the Attractions provided the perfect compliment to Elvis' machine gun vocals and rhythm guitar, with drummer Pete Thomas a standout. Except for brief forays into the solo spotlight however, the group stayed in the background, leaving no doubt who was the main attraction.

As if to underscore the message, Elvis was frequently lit with some of the most effective lighting imaginable. During "Lipstick Vogue," a sneering assault on trendy, shallow women (one of his favorite targets), the stage was completely black except for the two red floodlights at Elvis' feet, turning the singer into a menacingly glowing spirit as he whispered the sinister lyrics, only to have the stage moments later bombarded with light as the rest of the band joined in. Taken as a whole with "Watching the Detectives," the song it excellently blended into, these renditions were the high point of the show.

However, musicianship alone does not a concert make. In any performance situation, there must also be a certain amount of risk involved; i.e., the stage is like a battlefield that is won the more it is risked. With a performer like Elvis, where dramatic tension plays so large a part, this chance-taking is essential. Yet, save for a daring song list that shunned most of his more famous and popular songs, Elvis took very few chances, choosing instead to adopt a stifling, businesslike attitude that kept the audience at arm's length and prevented anything out of the ordinary from happening. In the end, nothing was gambled and nothing was gained. But at least Elvis didn't engage in any of the phoniness and show biz shenanigans that marred the opening set by the Rubinoos.

It's hard to imagine a band that works in as many tired rock cliches as the Rubinoos do. Despite and infectious blend of 60's style pop and Boston-like harmonies, the Rubinoos cluttered up their set with everything from a stiffly gyrating lead singer to a lackluster guitar "battle." Things really started going downhill when they tried some "God damned rock and roll" only to add the old pick-the-guitar-with-the-teeth routine to their store of crowd-pleasers. It's really too bad the Rubinoos feel they have to pump up their act with all those puerile antics because they actually played a very tight set, if one can forgive the trappings.

Elvis Costello played a tight set as well, but that was ultimately not enough. Despite its brevity (and with three albums worth of excellent material to draw from, Elvis could easily have played longer), the concert would have been a success had not that essential sense of urgency been missing. With this key ingredient of tension gone, the performance was reduced to a disappointingly inadequate showcase for Elvis' capabilities, and instead of capturing the stage as he should have done, he never really had more than a foothold.


Daily Nexus, February 22, 1979

Kevin MacKinnon reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions and opening act The Rubinoos, Saturday, February 17, 1979, Arlington Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA.


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Photo by Cindy Keefer.
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Photo by Mike Oran.
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Photo by Cindy Keefer.
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Page scans.


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