Since his first album was released in 1976, Elvis Costello has shown an ability to perform diverse musical styles, but with the same intensity, sarcastic wit, and talent.
His fans got more of the same last Wednesday night, as Costello and his band, the Attractions, roared through a concert at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel touching each of his musical "periods."
Heavier emphasis was placed on material from the more recent albums, Imperial Bedroom, Punch the Clock, and his latest, Goodbye Cruel World, but Costello also reached back for some old standards such as "Pump it Up," "Lipstick Vogue," and "Watching the Detectives."
All of the material was charged up by powerful arrangements as the Attractions, plus a guest saxophonist, brought new life to even the oldest songs. "Alison," from Costello's first album, My Aim is True, closed with a brief but furious drum blast.
Spirited piano playing complemented Costello's vocals throughout the show, but especially during "Clubland" and "Every Day I Write the Book." Although recorded in 1976, "Mystery Dance" seemed like new material with the accompanying saxophone.
Two songs from his latest album that show promise of becoming new Costello trademarks are the single, "The Only Flame in Town." and "Peace In Our Time." The latter was performed as one of the encores and Costello had all eyes riveted on him as he was backed only by himself on electric guitar. The openly political song brought screams and cheers from the audience.
One surprise in the show was a version of the Byrds' 1960s classic, "So You Want to be a Rock 'N' Roll Star." Costello and his band belted out the song as if they had written it.
While his 1970s material has received new life, Costello's attitude has changed as well. Known for angering crowds, critics, and promoters early in his career, Costello made a point of occasionally talking to the crowd.
Music and humor were not his only messages, however, as some of the politics in his lyrics came through in the dialogue. At one point he commented that his new album could have been titled Goodbye President Reagan. He also criticized the MTV generation, noting that in the old days, people picked up guitars themselves instead of watching performers on television.
The only flaw in the concert was that "Flame" was performed twice, once with saxophone and once without. It is obvious Costello wants the single to succeed since he has never had one high on the charts in America, but he has too much material to be repeating songs in concert.
Opening the concert was Costello's long-time friend and sometime producer, Nick Lowe. In recent years, Lowe has weathered the break-up of his former band Rockpile and a bout with alcoholism, but the performer looked fit and was enthusiastically received throughout a 45-minute set. Lowe performed older, well-known rockers such as "Switchboard Susan," "Cruel to be Kind," and "Stick it Where the Sun Don't Shine," mixed with several from his latest album, Nick Lowe and his Cowboy Outfit. Among the newer material was "Maureen" and the single, "Half a Boy and Half a Man."
Lowe was backed by a three-piece band that included former Squeeze keyboardist Paul Carrack. Lowe demonstrated he has no qualms about sharing the spotlight, as Carrack took over vocals on a version of the old Squeeze classic, "Tempted."
Carrack also sang "How Long," a hit he had in the 1970s with Ace, and "I Need You" from his solo album of a few years ago. Had he opened for a less powerful performer than Costello, Lowe would have stolen the show. The only boos he received came when he did not return for an encore.