Depending upon which account one reads, Elvis Costello is just another British punk rocker, a throwback to rockabilly, a sham or the new savior of rock 'n' roll. Different people see different things in the man's personality and music, making Costello the sort of mystery man the public seems to adore.
Last night, Costello finally came to Washington and he proved no mystery at all. He is not an obvious throwback to rockabilly or a real punker or a notable sham. He certainly is not the new savior of rock 'n' roll.
Despite all claims to the contrary, Costello is not much more than a reincarnation of early 1960s British rock. He is really even more limited than that, since his roots come out of long-forgotten English bands like the Dave Clark 5 and their American counterparts like ? and the Mysterians. Only his lyrics — which can be sharp and amusing — show any sophistication beyond the run of the 1960s Liverpool mill.
Not that Costello isn't entertaining. In fact, last night's show at the Warner Theater was a lot of fun and the sold out crowd ate it up for the most part. More than a few curiosity seekers bolted to the doors early, but most of the audience cheered and yelled throughout the set.
According to people who have followed the tour, Costello can be either very entertaining or very bad — most often, the latter. Apparently, Washington got the good Elvis Costello last night. At least, the show wasn't as peculiar as Costello's appearance on Saturday Night Live a while back.
The problem may be that the American rock press — and Costello's record label — is trying to make more out of the man than is artistically possible or fair. Costello has written some notable tunes like "Less than Zero" and "Alison," but much of his material seems intently ludicrous posturing. A couple of tunes offered last night in a quasi-early Who style were downright laughable in their attempt to project a latter-day Jimmy Porter image.
For the most part, last night's audience cheered not the anger Costello presents but the artist's driving energy and his often clever hooks. It's doubtful that many of Costello's American fans have the vaguest notion what the hell the man is talking about. They just like his spunky melodies and repeatable choruses.
To make matters worse — or better, depending on your point of view — Costello and his "band", the Attractions, play just about as well as the Dave Clark 5 or ? and the Mysterians. Although an acceptable singer, Costello himself churns away on lead guitar to no particularly notable purpose. The other three musicians rank in competence with a mediocre high school band.? The keyboard man tosses off organ riffs that would have embarrassed even the Mysterians back in 1965.
The level of incompetence was most evident on tunes like "Less than Zero," which have some reggae influences. As poor as the Attractions are at rock, they're worse at reggae, even when dealing only in overtones.
It's always nice to see rock that is fun. Of late, rock has lost a lot of its cosmic chuckle — one of its essential ingredients. Intentionally or not, Costello has reestablished at least a measure of that fun.
Still, let's not saddle the artist with anything more than that. Allow him to have his fun and avoid making him into the "new" anybody. Saviors of rock 'n' roll have a funny way of being turned into has-beens overnight.