Chicago — Elvis Costello Sings Again is the title of Costello's current U.S. mini-tour, which brought him to Chicago's Riviera Theatre Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Fans of the British pop maestro may wonder when Costello ever stopped singing; with 12 albums (not including a best-of) in 10 years and two in the last six months, Costello still seems to be hurtling along at an absurdly prolific rate.
The name of the tour means something else, though. In February, when Costello released his polished and brooding King of America album, he announced he was reverting to his real name, Declan MacManus. But this month, when his new album, Blood & Chocolate, came out — featuring some of the nastiest and edgiest material since his first couple of records — it was again billed as an Elvis Costello and The Attractions LP. (Just to muddy the waters further, the songwriting was credited to a new Costello pseudonym, Napoleon Dynamite.)
The tour, then, is a sort of historical summation of Costello's 10-year recording career, with different nights emphasizing different aspects of his songwriting style and personality. The spirit of the tour is intentionally cabaret. No theatre is supposed to be larger than 3,000 seats, and there is a deliberate self-mocking undertone to much of the presentation, including the program, which Costello wrote himself.
For example, in Chicago Sunday night, Costello played with the band that backed him on the King of America tour — Southern rockabilly players, most notably former Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton. Monday night Costello offered The Spectacular Spinning Songbook; members of the audience were invited to spin a wheel full of titles and the band was obliged to play whatever came up. (Along with Costello originals, Monday's audience heard such songs as Prince's "Pop Life," Skeeter Davis's "The End of the World," and Gerry and The Pacemakers' "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey").
The masters of ceremonies were a couple of Chicago Bears (in Los Angeles, the emcees were Tom Waits and The Bangles; in San Francisco, Huey Lewis; the tour will continue to Boston, New York and Philadelphia). Audience members were invited to dance in go-go cages, sit in an on-stage living-room set, and watch TV (U.S. President Ronald Reagan making speeches while Costello sang "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?")
Tuesday night's show had a jagged-edge, high-adrenalin dose of Elvis Costello and The Attractions at their most frenetic and fervent.
After an appearance by an awful, but dauntless, stand-up comedian, and a half-hour of other music, Costello and his band stumbled onto the stage. All were dressed in black, except for drummer Pete Thomas, who wore white. They promptly launched into a medley — their current single, "Tokyo Storm Warning," followed without a break by "Green Shirt," and "Watching The Detectives."
Costello paused briefly to say: "Good evening Chicago. We've got a horror show for you tonight," and then launched into another triplet of tunes.
The approach was to integrate his oldest work with his current material. The loutish, cranky rockabilly of "Honey, Are You Straight Or Are You Blind?" from the new album, was juxtaposed with the burning "You Belong To Me" from his second album, followed by the tender croon of "Jack Of All Parades" from King Of America. Remarkably little was picked from his middle period (Almost Blue, Imperial Bedroom, Punch The Clock, Goodbye Cruel World).
The choices of style and material signalled a return to Costello's beginnings and the whole New Wave pop esthetic of the late seventies. It was the openings of songs, and scattered phrases that spilled out of Costello's mouth, that brought the biggest cheers, phrases like "No uniform's going to keep you warm," from "Last of the Lipstick Vogue," or "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake," from "Watching The Detectives." Of course, Costello has always had a reputation as a songwriter and lyricist, but it was the musical elements that were particularly impressive in Tuesday night's show.
Costello's always brittle and adroit trio, The Attractions, sounded more aggressive than ever. In particular, Steve Naive's palette of effects — thin and cheesy organ squalls, spooky, jangling, musical phrases lifted from horror and spy soundtracks, and occasional grand romantic flourishes — marks him as one of the most dramatic keyboardists in pop.
Tuesday night's performance was as close as Costello is likely to get to nostalgia; certainly, the three encores — "Pump It Up," "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?" and "Radio, Radio" — harked back to early, vintage Costello. But the show was more than a simple case of milking memories; it seemed to demonstrate that the original impulse behind Costello and The Attractions is still alive and intensely felt. Or, as Costello explains with self-mocking grandeur in the program: "Napoleon Takes A Stand."