One would be hard-pressed to simply call Elvis Costello a rock star anymore. What we have instead is an ingratiating entertainer at the height of his powers. His music runs the pop gamut and his singing is reminiscent at various times of such diverse performers as Rudy Vallee, Bobby Darin and Hank Williams.
Gone is the anger, the thrashing out at society. Gone too is the mock Buddy Holly stance — the knock-knee jerkiness.
Stalled into his wrinkled suit. Costello appears to be a cross between a low-rent 1940s-style bandleader and an E.T. doll. In a word, this Elvis is lovable.
His performance Friday at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium was so engaging, one sensed that even the half moon over Long Island was slowing its descent to watch the show.
For the uninitiated, Costello emerged in 1976 as one of the bright lights of the British "new wave." His given name is Declan MacManus and if his adopted name seems somewhat contrived, it is not taken without design. The "Elvis" is obvious; the "Costello" side represents perhaps the respect for entertainers past as well as the roly-poly humor found in much of the current Costello's work. And with both names comes the reverence for American pop culture.
Recognized as a superb tunesmith, Costello's craft as a performer has now caught up with his writing abilities. Like a Crosby or a Dylan, Costello has learned to turn limitations in his favor. While be lacks great vocal range, he is able to conjure up a remarkable range of emotions. Even when he reaches into octaves where he should never tread, be comes away reeking of vulnerability. This is a confident singer who requires no harmonies or vocal fills from his band, the Attractions.
The band — Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas on bass and Steve Nieve on keyboards — are hardly passive passengers in all this. As Elvis performs sparingly on guitar, much of the coloring of the songs is derived from Nieve's mastery of tone and the strength of the rhythm section.
Most rock played in stadiums consists of little more than a singer pushing his voice over a wall of sound. But Costello and band play with extraordinary precision. One thinks of a great novel — Hemingway perhaps — where nothing is wasted, The amplification is minimal for an outdoor concert and the playing is subdued enough to keep the vocals in the forefront. But the band tends to soar at just the right moment. The performance is meticulous, but never mechanical.
If all this begins to sound stodgy, it is the band's ability to bridge generations of musical styles without a hitch that makes the performance so hypnotic. We go directly from the slashing rock of "Hand in Hand" to the whispery intro in "Shabby Doll." That song turns into a funk number and fades into a countrified version of "Watch Your Step." From there, a few quick bars of the old O'Jays' R&B hit, "Back Stabbers" — played, of course, as a rocker.
For highlights it was strictly a matter of personal favorites. Several of the new songs from the current Imperial Bedroom album — the dramatic "Man Out of Time," the jaunty "Team Before Bedtime" and "The Long Honeymoon" (a tango!) — were delightful. "Alison," Costello's best-known song, can still bring you close to tears. Best of all were the high-energy standbys like "Mystery Man," "Radio, Radio" and Nick Lowe's "Peace, Love and Understanding."
In all, there were 30 songs over two hours. The moon missed the last of the three encores.
Ken Schlager writes about music for Lifestyles.