I saw Elvis Costello two nights ago at (interestingly enough) the Booth Amphitheater in Cary, NC (a suburb of Raleigh). It was an excellent show, and if he’d had a better audience, it would have been a great one.
The amphitheater only holds about 2000, so it was a fairly intimate setting for a show. Elvis appeared with the North Carolina Symphony (they played some of his orchestral pieces and provided interesting backup for some of his hits) and Steve Nieve, his original keyboardist from EC and the Attractions. So that was fun.
What I want to talk about, though, is not so much the show itself (though I’ll cover that). I really want to talk about the Elvis Costello I saw versus the guy who first burst onto the hinterland American consciousness in 1978.
I have no idea if you’re an EC fan or not. I am. I heard “Alison” on a nifty AM station from Burlington, NC, (!) that had switched its format to modern rock in the spring of 1978. (They were playing Elvis and the Attractions, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker and the Rumour, The Fabulous Poodles, and later Joe Jackson and The Records, etc.) I went out immediately and bought My Aim is True. When the needle hit the vinyl (I know, I’m ancient) and “Welcome to the Working Week” roared out at me, I knew I’d found my guy.
I had friends who had latched onto Springsteen, and I certainly admired him. I had other friends, including my best pal and lead guitarist who’d latched onto Dire Straits. I certainly liked Dire Straits, but they felt a little creaky to me – like a brilliant anachronism – as did Tom Petty, whom I loved – and love. Tom, much as I enjoyed him, wasn’t a guy I could call “my guy.”
But Elvis Costello was different. He was the classic Angry Young Man, but with his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek. And those lyrics! From that first stanza of “Welcome to the Working Week”:
Now that your picture’s in the paper
Being perfectly admired
And you can – have everyone
That you have ever desired…
All you gotta tell me now
Is why, why why why…!
Of course My Aim is True is shot full of those kinds of lyrics. That line from “Less than Zero” – “They traded in their baby for a Chevrolet”; the great line from “Watching the Detectives” – “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake”; and, of course, from “Alison” – “I think somebody better turn out the big light/’Cos I can’t stand to see you this way….”
The incredible run went through the first four albums – My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces (my favorite), and Get Happy! before Elvis the Serious Musician emerged and challenged the Angry Young Man with an album (Almost Blue) completely removed from anything he’d previously done or would do – or so we thought.
Because the truth about Elvis is that he did nothing more than publicly state what the truth was – he’s a great singer/songwriter who masqueraded as a punkster to break through the clutter of the late 1970’s. It was a brilliant disguise, but it’s not who he really is. Look at his later work:
“Shipbuilding,” “All This Useless Beauty,” “Only Flame in Town,” “God Give Me Strength” – Elvis Costello, the snarling young punk of “I’m Not Angry,” “Radio, Radio,” and “Moods for Moderns” loves romantic ballads….
The guy I saw last night is only a couple of years younger than me – although he feels younger than that. I think the music business makes one stay young, even if it’s an artificial youth fed by those wonderfully damning desires Tom T. Hall chronicles: “…faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money….” He did the right choices from the canon of work that made him legendary: “Watching the Detectives” – “What’s so Funny (’bout Peace Love and Understanding?)” – “Accidents Will Happen,” and, of course, “Alison.” He also gave nice nods to his singer/songwriter years with “All this Useless Beauty,” “Veronica,” and “God Give Me Strength.” The orchestra supported him admirably, but his interplay with Steve Nieve made the show. There they were – two old warriors from the rock wars in front of a wine drunk yuppie crowd trying desperately to remember when they were cool enough to hang with Elvis Costello (answer – never) having a good time playing what they damn well pleased and having the audience beg for more.
It’s nice work if you can get it. Elvis Costello can – and I’m glad for him….