It was not for a long time, not until each member of the audience that Elvis Costello had been exhorting for more than an hour was finally on his or her feet, that the man himself bounded back onstage to deliver the evening's first and only encore.
A rather typical moment for a performer who certainly plays to his audience these days; plays with it, really. Hands clasped behind his head, guitar dangling unplayed from his shoulder, arms cutting wide, theatrical swaths through the air to underscore a particular lyric, even dancing, Costello exploited songs like "Watching The Detectives" for all the drama they were worth, manipulating the audience till it begged for more. And then damn near didn't give it to them.
"He likes posing as much as Bowie does", a friend commented. Exactly.
If that suggests to you that Elvis Costello, the most convincing — hell, the most genuinely angry young man England has produced since Jimmy Porter, has changed an awful lot in an awfully short space of time, you're probably right. As a person, or persona, that is, although traces of musical conservatism have also started appearing about the edges in songs like Smokey Robinson's "Don't Know What to do With Myself". And when this approach meshed with sartorial conservatism, as it did in "Stranger In The House" (a country weeper sung in a melting tremolo by Elvis, dressed in a black shirt trimmed with Grand Old Opry-style brocade) the effect was almost comic.
The rest of the set, drawn almost entirely from Costello's two studio albums, gave the audience a reasonable dose of what it came for: Elvis's brand of quirky, hardnosed, utterly captivating rock and roll.
That said, even the staunchest Costello supporter would have to admit that, on the basis of his Toronto shows over the past year — at the El Mocambo, Massey hall, and the O'Keefe — some of his very best songs have never successfully made the transition to the stage.
"Waiting For The End Of The World", for example, has, to these ears, never fully recovered from the loss of the sinuous, biting lead guitar lines which graced the version on My Aim Is True. And "The Beat" — what can one say about "The Beat", that majestic tribute to the pleasures of the hand that electrified This Year's Model? Onstage it comes off as a quick run through at best, Elvis confusing speed with urgency.
On these songs, and others, the limitations of the Attractions' instrumental and vocal lineup became painfully clear (although, to be fair, it wasn't always possible to really hear the band, which was fighting a curiously democratic sound mix that rarely allowed individual instruments to assert themselves. One missed, in particular, Bruce Thomas's melodic, propulsive bass lines).
Excuses aside, though, it's clearer than ever that the Attractions need another guitarist or, at the least, some help with the backing vocals so crucial to Costello's records.
As for Battered Wives, who opened both shows, they should be ignored till they go away. Especially by well-meaning women activists.