ELVIS COSTELLO at UCLA Ackerman Grand Ballroom, May 28
Elvis Costellos Tuesday-night show ended after a series of encores (Five? Six? Was anyone counting?) with a drawn-out, sinister and altogether devastating rendition of his 1986 stalkers ballad I Want You, for which his adoring, neck-craning, chorus-singing fans rewarded him by muscling close enough to the stage that we could watch the spit congeal in the corners of his mouth as he exhaled each last seductively menacing word. It was midnight, hed been playing since 9, and it had already become clear to most of us that dawn could break over this barn of a venue -- the kind of joint youd likely rent for your next low-budget wedding -- before wed willingly let him go. Okay, some people had already left before the encores began, complaining, despite a rush of familiar old standbys early on (a cadence-altered Waiting for the End of the World; Watching the Detectives; I Dont Want To Go to Chelsea), that they didnt get to hear any of the songs they knew. And while its true he skipped over Alison, Everyday I Write the Book and Nick Lowes Whats So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding), he did speed through No Action from My Aim Is True and Imperial Bedrooms Beyond Belief -- treasures so unexpected it was possible to fantasize that he might even trot out Hoover Factory or Black and White World. He didnt. But those who stayed late got to scream along to his 1978 Radio, Radio, and marvel while genius keyboardist Steve Nieve went all ambient-spacey on a new song, Radio Silence, and twist to Tear Off Your Own Head (Its a Doll Revolution). The band -- with bassist Dave Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas -- even played a faithful-to-the-record Pump It Up. Happy now?
Observers over the years have accused Costello of various crimes: Being too remote, too hostile, too arrogant; epitomizing that angry young man for which England fancies itself so famous. But its all been bunk with which critics can safely contain a pop songwriter who still wont license his music to sell cars. At 47, with an epic new album in the bins, Costello is suddenly everywhere you look and listen, and yet he still confounds anyones cliche and shrugs off every category: Hes a music hall legend with no real antecedent, a big-band leader with a rock & roll heart, a minstrel turned jazz apprentice whos laid himself so bare that hes even done his woodshedding -- with Brodsky, Bacharach, et al. -- out in the open. On stage in what was loudly billed as his first dancehall show in 20 years, he emerged reborn again as an animated comedian collaborating at mischief, encouraging his fawning devotees to sing along and complimenting us all on our fine voices when we complied. Alibi, a tribute to all those lame excuses, turned into an anti-analysis ritual, with Costello acting out each descriptive line -- You dont fit the body that youre trapped in! hed shriek, thrusting his arms into the air -- and his audience, with appropriate dismissiveness, labeling each one in response: alibi, alibi. High Fidelity and You Belong To Me were done as reckless, rowdy anthems for a big love cynics party.
Its a testament to When I Was Cruels genius that the new songs have become nearly as precious as the old a mere month after the records release, and evidence of Costellos mellowed maturity that some themes are radically different: When Costello introduced 15 Petals, the song he wrote for wife Cait ORiordan, and called it a love song, he meant it. And the guy standing next to me knew all the words.