If you had asked anyone in Santa Barbara eight months ago who Elvis Costello was, you would have received a blank stare for your effort. It's not that we're all that behind the times here. Last September Elvis Costello's record company didn't know who Elvis Costello was. The events that have followed 23-year-old Declan Patrick McManus since recording his first album last year for $3,500 are truly the stuff rock legends are made of. His powerful, and puzzling, performance at Rob Gym Friday was no exception.
No one at Rob Gym really knew what to expect from their $6.50 admission fee. Not only has the New Wave — that back-to-roots rock movement most critics connect Costello with — usually skipped Santa Barbara in its West Coast visits; there were sketchy news accounts coming from Costello's L.A. concerts describing some rather erratic onstage behavior. The group had been miffed by a bad sound mix and there had been some instrument smashing and an abbreviated forty minute set.
Although Costello's record and media promotion have sought to portray an artist rather than a punk, the reports, coupled with Friday's two hour late start, had some wondering if they might have paid to see a spoiled prima donna. They didn't. Instead, Costello and his group, the Attractions, ended up treating the two-thirds capacity gym to an hour and ten minutes of some of the most gutsy and progressive rock it will ever likely hear.
The wait wasn't Elvis' fault. His producer and opening act Nick Lowe, reportedly went out to dinner in L.A. instead of following his band to UCSB. Backstage later, he said he had arrived "five minutes after they decided Mink DeVille should go on." As for Costello's rumored erratic behavior, the only signs Friday came during a short beef with the security crew during the second song.
After sitting peacefully through Mink DeVille's opening set, many in the crowd packed the front stage area when Elvis took the stage around 10 p.m. Pushing between fans and the NES Security crew followed. NES, which one patron said "stands for Nasty, Evil and Sadistic," was winning.
Responding, Elvis bent down to point an angry finger at one stout guard, causing the crowd to surge through the security. After the song he stalked offstage to have a word with someone, then returned to say he was “pissed off at those (bleeping) guys.” Next, he chose an appropriate quote from his song, "Living in Paradise,” in dedicating it to "all the 'physical jerks' in the audience." But after this ruffling of the feathers in the early going, Costello quickly settled down to business.
Elvis' music and lyrics have provided critics with another chance to use an old cliche ("Dylan of the Seventies”) and also to create a new one ("power pop"). Despite the ridiculousness of the first phrase, there is some legitimacy to the second. Mixing sparse instrumentation with defiant, sarcastic vocals, Elvis’ first two records have included the kind of short, punchy songs great singles are made from.
The music Friday was similarly undressed. The whole line-up consisted of bass, drums, a barely audible organ and Elvis' rhythm guitar. Despite a rather muddy mix, the sound suggested a savvy for the intricacies of rock not usually associated with New Wave "minimalists" (make that two old cliches).
For one thing, the music never stopped. Instead of finishing songs Elvis would walk back towards drummer Pete Thomas and work out a segue into the next number. By sacrificing the
between-song applause, Elvis kept the pace set at a fever pitch. Though Thomas gave the songs their kick and movement, he has to share credit for the smooth transitions. Elvis wrote all the songs played and the fact that some of them ("Lipstick Vogue" into “Watching the Detectives") fit like a puzzle is a tribute to his craftsmanship.
As said before, Elvis was surprisingly progressive. Most New Wave bands dispense with musicianship as just so much excess “polish." Elvis, however, is an experimental type. There were a few short moments Friday where, if I’d closed my eyes, I could have been at a Pink Floyd concert. Though his guitar playing is crude even by rock standards, Elvis made up in imagination what he lacked in technique. “Detectives,” a haunting tale of a love homicide, had an intro that could have come from a sixties' spy movie.
Other songs showed a similar knack for creating a distinct picture with a minimal amount of effort. "Lipstick Vogue” was one of the spaciest, and strongest, New Wave songs I've ever seen performed. It began with a burst of drum shots from Thomas, then slowed down to an eerie, organ-held drone. Then with green backlights lighting up his face like a vampire. Elvis recited a condemning lyric and then left the mike to play one more buzzing chorus, finishing his solo with some reverberating feedback. Taken as a whole the song left me like I'd just had my rope cut on a space walk, while the last line "Sometimes I almost feel, Just like a human being" kept orbiting my helmet.
For rock headliners, Costello and the Attractions cut rather odd figures onstage. Rock performers in recent times have seemed more concerned with transmitting sex appeal than talent. Not so with Costello. Dressed down in his usual horn-rim glasses, cheap blue blazer and unkept hairstyle, he wasn't out there for your love or sympathy. Even so, he appeared in better health than most New Wave death wishers. The Attractions, however, looked more like extras from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest than rock musicians. And it's about time. There hasn't been a decent band of uglies since the Stones.
Contrary to expectations, Elvis didn't spit and sneer his way through his songs. The only contorted faces appeared on the lines that dealt with genuine anger. During his attack on today's female trendsetters "This Year's Girl," he scowled as he listed off "Those disco synthesizers, those daily tranquilizers, these body building prizes, those bedroom alibis, All this and no surprises from this year’s girl."
On the rest of the songs he accompanied the lyrics with hand pantomime and exaggerated eye movements. Though his glasses did make a nice screen for the latter, few beyond the first few rows could appreciate them. As with many New Wave performers Elvis is still a bit stiff onstage. Though he prowled the corners of the stage on two occasions the rest of the time he dug in like a statue behind the mike stand. Conversation with the audience was limited to "Alright" and "Thanks a lot." With time he should loosen up in the same way that Mink DeVille has since his first tour.
Mink DeVille has to have one of the most interesting make-ups of any band around. Though you'll find them in the New Wave section of your record store, the styles and music behind the group are almost a generation old. The six piece New York group is headed by singer and songwriter Willy DeVille, who pictures himself as a sort of modern day Dion or Sinatra.
Image played a much larger part in DeVille's set than it did in Costello's. Wearing a snazzy, three-piece suit, pompadour and a varying sneer, DeVille is a sometimes self-conscious poser. He's tough like a gang leader but refined like a crooner. If you can swallow his cool, Mink DeVille offers some tough and romantic rock, all of which can be traced to other performers.
"Heart On the Line," with its bass drum cannon shots and dramatic acoustic guitar strumming reminded of Phil Spector. On "Soul Twist," DeVille finished on his knees after some gymnastic mike-stand bends ala James Brown. The pace never let up, and although some of the songs seemed to peak too early, DeVille’s presence diverted the audience's attention.
In a way it's ironic that New Wave made its Santa Barbara debut the same weekend as the annual Grateful Dead visit. Neither event came close to selling out. I have nothing against the Grateful Dead but their glory days are behind them.
Sure there is anger in the music of Costello and DeVille. But it is directed against the status quo, not the world in general. I went to see Elvis half expecting him to put on an angry pose like a car salesman might adjust his smile. I left feeling like I’d seen a guy who would be just as good if he was happy everyday. I think I got my money's worth.