Elvis Costello is curious. "What's this place we're playing like?" he inquires. It's the Orpheum, our ornately appointed soft-seater concert hall.
Elvis Costello is excited. The Orpheum show on Tuesday will mark the first date on a concert tour that has reunited him with The Attractions, the lithe and lethally efficient band with which he slapped North America awake in 1978.
Their only appearances prior to Tuesday have been for TV, the first being David Letterman's show, the second for an English program hosted by former Squeeze keyboard player Jools Holland.
Elvis remembers the first show as chaotic.
"We were brilliant in sound check," he recalls, amused. "But we were out of control on the show."
Elvis Costello is nervous.
"Nerves make the performance," Elvis reckons and it's easy to sense that, if he was impressed by the sound check, he was thrilled by the mayhem that ensued.
"I did an appearance with Tony Bennett for MTV and that's what he told me, which is what Frank Sinatra told him. I certainly don't mind taking advice from Tony Bennett, who got his advice from Frank Sinatra. Butterflies make it better."
Elvis Costello has sold out — that is, his concert date sold out instantly upon its announcement. Costello's curiosity, excitement and anticipation are reciprocated: He hasn't played Vancouver since January 1981, by which time he and The Attractions already had travelled down avenues that distanced them from the punk-new wave pack with which they were associated. And the new Brutal Youth album, featuring The Attractions, is one of his best.
There is a lot of catching up to do, then. One of their biggest challenges has been striking a balance between what new songs to play and what old songs must be played.
In going back, Elvis, bassist Bruce Thomas, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard player Steve Nieve stripped the arrangements back to what they'd been when Elvis originally wrote the songs.
In recording Brutal Youth, Elvis worked closely with Pete during the initial demo stage of the writing, bringing in Steve as the sessions took shape. Playing bass was old mate and former Attractions producer Nick Lowe, who contributed his light, loping style to seven of the LP's 15 songs while Bruce was called in for the more complicated numbers that Lowe jokingly referred to as "the Norwegians."
Once more, Costello is curious. "The secret weapon of this record was having Nick Lowe, because he took the simple, rhythmic approach to the tracks he played on, so I'm wondering how Bruce will approach them. I really want to get under the skin of the new songs and Bruce's bass parts are certain to change the character of the songs Nick played on."
Costello's curiosity points out how each player in The Attractions contributed, and contributes, to the sound of Costello's records. When he's with The Attractions, Costello's guitar playing is sharp and rhythmic, leaving open spaces for Steve and also Bruce, whose busy, aggressive style virtually turns the bass into a lead instrument.
Brutal Youth, however, is neither nostalgia nor reconstruction. Costello's forays into soundtrack composition, writing for others (Johnny Cash, Wendy James, June Tabor), collaboration (Paul McCartney, Nieve), classical music (The Juliet Letters) and the way he has pushed the boundaries of his own writing on the Spike and Mighty Like a Rose albums insures that he is bringing a great deal more sophistication and craftsmanship to Brutal Youth than was possible on the last LP to feature The Attractions, 1986's Blood & Chocolate.
"That's the whole point," says Elvis. "It's the culmination of what I've learned but at the same time I don't feel I have to display all I've learned on one record."
Consequently, a carefully composed song such as "London's Brilliant Parade" is balanced by the more playful "Clown Strike," while other parts of the record such as the '50s-era piano triplets that leaven "All the Rage" — resonate with the awareness of an avowed rock fan.
"This is what makes a record," he agrees. "It should be fun. It's like when you're doing a song, 'Rocking Horse Road,' and you're thinking Curtis Mayfield. You're not trying to sound like Curtis Mayfield but you're trying to think the way he would have thought and to get that feeling onto the record."