Will the real Elvis Costello please stand up? I mean, here was a guy who made fun of the Queen's royal guard and wrote songs like "Radio, Radio" and "I Don't Wanna Go To Chelsea" vying for the title of Cole Porter of the 80s. Is this a mid-career change or the realization of a plan?
Since his arrival on the British pub scenes in 1977 Costello has never had a problem getting press. The problem that most critics have with Costello is whether the hostile punk that dared take on the "king's" name and degrade Ray Charles could do a complete turnabout.
Costello's recent appearance at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia did little to clear things up. His over-polished, over-calculated game plan was too perfect. All the favorites were there — "Mystery Dance," "Watching the Detectives" and "Alison," but not with the tenacity and energy from a performer we've come to love and hate.
The single thing that probably changed Costello's program the most was the addition of the TKO horns. Gone was the beautiful melodic opening guitar chords of "Alison" (replaced by the overbearing blare of horns.) Imagine, if you can, the reggae beat and pace of his best-known FM song "Watching the Detectives" with horns and trumpets. Just wait until Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru and King Sunny Ade find out it's OK to use horns in their work. Won't they be surprised!
Most of the listeners at the Mann were treated to a performer who looked like he was doing an out-of-town warm-up to a production before it hit Broadway. One of the things about rock 'n' roll that makes it special when performed live is its unpredictability, its willingness to improvise and be different. Costello's show in support of his latest album Punch the Clock was none of these.
During Costello's early American tours with Eddie Money and the Rubinoos, he shunned the American press, caused controversy at every turn, yet the critics still were daring to use the word "genius" or "brilliant" when describing his work.
Either Costello has been an artsy poser of the worst sort (which I doubt) or this is just another phase that we're told we must tolerate from temperamental musicians. The most ironic thing about Costello's turnabout is the fact that it rides on the crest of his 1982 album Imperial Bedroom, which is hailed as his greatest work.
So what makes this guy tick? I mean, do you think you might have a problem with blaring horns starting out "London's Calling" by the Clash instead of Joe Strummer's guitar. Or how about the Police shelving Andy Summers' guitar for a saxophone?
I guess what I thought was coming all evening from Costello and the Attractions was an instant replay of the now infamous Saturday Night Live show they did five years ago, The band started a song and after a few chords, Costello halted the proceedings. The band started up again with a different tune. There it is again... unpredictability, the rawness. At the Mann, I was hoping Costello would tell us it was all a put-on and say, "You didn't really buy that, did you?"
The explanation never came. Costello and his band drifted into the summer eve with the Philadelphia skyline in the backdrop. Even the O'Jays/Gamble-Huff tribute of "Back Stabbers" couldn't save Elvis in the music capital of the world. And if I had heard that as the band left the stage they were headed for the Schubert Theater or Academy of Music to perform Oklahoma, I don't think I would have been surprised.