Among many interesting developments in modern music is a recent shift towards the simple. It is what I call the honing complex — and I don't mean firing the entire band and replacing them with a synthesizer.
Lately, several performers have taken a detour from the bright spotlights and big arenas, choosing instead to strap on the odd guitar and twang it out in a more intimate setting.
John Hiatt and T Bone Burnette, both critically acclaimed guitarists and songwriters, recently took time off from burgeoning rock careers for some shows in this manner. The process is hardly new. Peter Townshend often sidestepped The Who to perform solo and with cohorts like Ronnie Lane, while Eric Clapton, tired of the fanfare of Cream, was a main attraction of the Delaney and Bonnie roadshow.
But who would have expected Elvis Costello — often considered the pivotal angry young man of rock — to strip down to a six-string to strum his personal favorites, among them tunes like "Stage Fright" and "I Threw It All Away"?
Perhaps few would have predicted it, but this is exactly what happened Sunday night at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, where Elvis was at the tail end of a month's worth of solo performances across the United States.
Actually, though, the solo shows came as no surprise to experienced Elvis observers, this writer included.
While most know Costello as the horn-rimmed rocker of the 70s, or at least as a polished and prolific pop composer, in the beginning Elvis was a nightclub picker, relying on his knowledge of a hundred country, folk and jazz standards. This was long before the news boys had heard of punk or concocted the new wave.
And while Elvis has built his band the Attractions into one of the most accomplished rock groups, he has hardly veiled his own incredible talent or insatiable thirst for new adventures.
He has already done soul, waltzed nostalgic, ripped with sizzling new wave sounds and popped to the top of the charts. And who can forget his quirky country record, or the duets with George Jones?
Country singing and picking provided a nifty backbone for his solo show, with Elvis wailing western-style on such tunes as "Stranger In The House," "Green Shirt" (including an audience clap-a-long of sharpshooter accuracy), "Girls Talk," "Motel Matches" and half a dozen others.
Costello the Crooner was also in top form, demonstrating the high marks he has earned in singing school and his brand-new bent for erotic phrasing. Despite its acoustic presentation, "You Little Fool," which opened the two-hour performance, still featured luscious vocals, as did Elvis mainstays like "Riot Act," "Everyday I Write The Book" and the prosaic "Shipbuilding," one of the finest anti-war songs ever composed.
The solo show also allowed Costello ample opportunity to introduce some of his newest creations, among them a jazzy "The Only Flame In Town," which included fiery lines like "...even an inferno can cool down to an ember."
Costello — who often releases albums faster than you can listen to them — was in jubilant spirits as he reeled off the new numbers in rapid order.
The best of the new songs was "Worthless Thing," a brilliantly witty expose of pop exploitation. Its polished form indicated that it was destined for inclusion at the next Costello recording session.
The sold-out Warfield crowd was extremely attentive, listening in rapt silence, perhaps aware that many of the Costello compositions were being performed for the first and only time.
Elvis acknowledged the reverent mood; but he was also playful.
Joined on stage by T Bone Burnette (who opened the show with his own riveting acoustic set), Costello played some sophomoric leads while Burnette sang. A few of his chordings brought chuckles from the crowd. Elvis, obviously amused at his own posturing, let loose with a Dennis the Menace smile and said of his guitar work, "a little bit of Jerry Garcia there."
In a similar vein, Burnette and Costello harmonized on a few well-rehearsed Homer and Jethro-style numbers. Lanky Burnette and the diminutive Costello, looked something like Mutt and Jeff.
The pair performed a camp "Tennessee Blues," followed by an even zanier "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), the latter introduced as a solution to the raging debate over San Francisco's official song.
This was the mood of the night and it was wonderful to witness. Costello's relaxed and jaunty performance washed away whatever bitter doubts might remain about the sorry fate of modern rock 'n' roll.
Refreshing sojourns like these should be considered mandatory.