Friday morning a storm settled over Austin. Thunder rocked the sky, water streamed down the streets and hail pounded the rooftops.
Friday evening another kind of storm visited Austin. Elvis Costello and the Attractions came to the Opera House and thoroughly rocked its inhabitants. The only differences: one storm was 50,000 feet high, and the other took place on level, though shaking, ground.
The show opened with the Rubinoos from California, young, hot and full of three-guitar energy. Immediately ripping into some power-laden rock 'n' roll, they parodied everyone from Kiss to Ted Nugent with infectious rhythms and interesting harmonies.
But the Rubinoos success was like a taste of cotton-candy to the Costello-crazed crowd: sweet and tempting, but nothing to bite into... or bite back. Tommy James and the Shondells wasn't what the crowd came to hear, even if it did flash half the audience back to a dance in their junior high school gym.
After a mercifully short wait, Elvis Costello appeared onstage, wearing a black and white checkered coat and the horn-rimmed glasses of a computer programmer — which he once was. Looking painfully adolescent, and full of nervous energy, Elvis launched into "Accidents Will Happen" from his latest release, Armed Forces.
"Ready to experiment
Ready to be burned
If it wasn't for the acci-
Then some would never ever learn"
"Goon Squad" followed immediately and although Steve Naive's organ was swallowed up in the throbbing beat, the band drove onward full of power and control.
Armed Forces was originally entitled Emotional Fascism and indeed the songs reflected a cynical disattachment from emotional dependency. "Green Shirt," "Oliver's Army" and especially the heavily syncopated "Two Little Hitlers" placed Elvis in a nihilistic realm that distanced him from both banality and comparison.
With flares shooting from his eyeglass lenses, Elvis' interests remained intensely upon the music. Sweat covered his face and beaded below his lips, clinging precariously yet refusing to roll off. The energy that burned in his eyes was fierce, and focused somewhere beyond the hot flash of the lights.
"I don't wanna be your lover
I just wanna be your victim."
Falling into the trance of Pete Thomas' percussion, Elvis roared onward with barely a break. As Thomas and Naive leaped into the opening of "Big Boys," Elvis' half-smile turned into a cruel sneer. The emotions he sings of are the one he knows best, revenge and guilt — "the stronger feelings, the ones you are left with at night."
By this time Elvis felt cocky, tilting his head, spitting out lines to an audience he barely acknowledged, playing off the contradictions that infuse his lyrics with the cynicism and paranoia of the modern world. Meanwhile, the audience operated in an emotional vacuum, bouncing off each other like atoms in a reactor.
And they were reacting. As Elvis returned for an encore after his all-too-brief 50-minute set, the crowd was as manic as the band. Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" demonstrated more than just the brilliance of Costello and the Attractions. It also pointed up the importance of producer Lowe's effect on Armed Forces, relentless power laced with Costello's slashing emotion.
One more encore with "Watching the Detectives" segueing directly into "Pump It Up," ended the show. The lights came up, a tape began to play, but as a cool breeze finally chilled the sweat off of the limp crowd, the words and music still burned in each brain.
"Who left these fingerprints
On my imagination."
The answer can only be... Elvis Costello.