"Too much seriousness takes away the chance for any fun. If people are too serious, they're boring," Elvis Costello said in an interview nearly three years ago. "I want to keep it simple. That's why my songs are all about three minutes long. Any longer and I would be bored listening."
With two albums out within the last year and still on the charts, Costello brought his band, the Attractions, to San Francisco for the first show of his 1981 American tour recently. Despite playing over 25 songs in the 80 minutes he spent on stage, Elvis had problems promoting his last two records.
When you keep your songs so short, and are as prolific a songwriter as Costello, you end up with an overwhelming abundance of material — even if you have only been around for a few years.
Since his debut album, My Aim Is True, in 1977. Costello has recorded 76 songs on five albums, as well as providing original hit material for such stars as Linda Ronstadt, Carlene Carter, Rachel Sweet. Dave Edmunds, and even country singer, George Jones.
Costello didn't tour America last year, instead he released Get Happy!! a collection of 20 short and snappy tunes, followed a few months later with another 20 songs on a compilation album, Taking Liberties.
Facing the difficulty of presenting a fair amount of the 40 songs out since he last toured in this country. Costello nonetheless charged ahead with a fair sampling of material from another album, Trust, which Columbia Rocords has scheduled for release early in February.
Elvis opened his show at The Warfield Theatre in San Francisco with a sparkling rendition of "Just A Memory," accompanied only by Steve Naive on keyboards. Elvis had put on quite a few pounds since his last American visit (perhaps in deference to the real Elvis), and hardly moved at all during his performance; a marked contrast from the charged stage maneuveurs of his previous Bay Area appearances.
Attired in a gray jacket with a mustard-colored scarf wound chokingly tight around his neck, Costello planted his feet firmly in front of the main microphone and led the Attractions in an extended celebration of rock and roll interrupted only by Elvis' "Thank you"s and announcing the titles of some of the newer, unreleased material.
The new record, Trust appears to be a concept album of sorts, the central theme concerning patriotism, faith, and personal honesty; though like all Costello material the meaning is warped by his psychoposturing.
The sound, kept to a constant rumble during the performance, was lightened considerably whenever a new song was presented, so lyrics became discernible. A simple light show, consisting of a pair of slides projected above the band, alternately showed a sky full of stars or several bars of stripes.
Of the new material, "Luxenberg" and "Clubland" are crafty rockers, while "Love Is Wrong" is a reworking of Buddy Holly's "Love's Made A Fool Of You" that is faithful both in composition and in meaning to the original. "Big Sister's Clothes" is a typical adventure in perversity in the style of Costello's earlier, "Tiny Steps."
Elvis dedicated "Radio Radio," a scathing attack on commercial radio that remains one of his most vicious compositions, to KSAN FM; a station that supported and played him from the beginning, but has recently gone entirely over to country music.
Costello corrected his error the following night by introducing the same song, "The first thing we did when we got in this country was switch on the FM radio in the car. It's not getting any better, is it?"
This show featured a cleaner and softer sound that allowed for closer scrutiny of the lyrics. Costello was notably looser, and dressed more informal. He opened with a new ballad, "Shot With His Own Gun," a frustrating tale of failure. Another new song, "Strict Time," was sung in a Dylanesque style, with Elvis biting off the words in a throaty voice.
Elvis was kind and courteous with his audience; a marked contrast from the angry young man who once sang, "I Want to bite the hand that feeds me." He sang with exceptional style and grace; at a pace and length that kept the crowd dancing and left them satisfied after the final rumble of "Pump It Up," his last encore both nights.
A slow, soulful and swinging version of an old Patsy Cline number, "I Got The Letters," revealed Costello's true vocal skills and potential as a genuine king of throb. In the midst of his epic-like "Watching The Detectives," he worked in a reggae riff that quickly developed into a rousing excerpt from Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster."
Costello even bent to the audiences' requests for "Allison," a colossal hit for Linda Ronstadt, but a tune Elvis has refused to perform live because it is too emotional.
Though he hardly moved about the stage, he managed to inject almost violent energy into every song with his intense facial expressions and theatrical gestures.
Unlike some of his previous appearances in the Bay Area, this time Costello handled all of the vocals himself. While he is not the most melodic singer or tenderest balladeer; his voice is a most effective instrument, and his range is far greater than any of the critics have credited him with. He was much more compelling on the slower tunes than on the screamers.
By the second nights' conclusion, the audience seemed extremely satisfied. Costello has grown up. He is surely rock's most prolific tunesmith and will undoubtedly become one of the most successful as well. This awareness was driven home with particular clarity when an associate reminded me that Costello is, at age 26, just a few months younger than me. Time is surely on his side.
In a night full of pleasant surprises, the best was provided by the opening act. The Squeeze is an adept pop quintet from England with several albums out on A&M, though they are just beginning to receive recognition in America through the success of Argybargy.
Led by Glenn Tilbrook, who plays lead guitar and is the main vocalist, The Squeeze blended farisa organ and pumping bass on over a dozen catchy compositions. Their songs burst with hooks that draw heavily from their Mersey roots, with melodies that fully utilize their four vocalists.
Rhythm guitarist Chris Difford, who looks and sounds like a member of The Adams Family cast, provided a captivating contrast to Tilbrook's clean and sweet vocals. The members of the band treated the stage like one large dance hall, particularly effective on "Mess Around," a beautiful rockabilly number from their next record (scheduled for release in late February or early March, according to A&M Records).
Tilbrook is the drive and focus of the band. He looks like a cross between David Byrne and Bruce Springsteen, but he moves with all the guile and confidence of the latter. With more quality material like "Pulling Mussels From A Shell," "If I Didn't Love You," or "Cool For Cats," I would wager that The Squeeze are going to make it very big.