“I was in a room with Chuck Berry once,” Elvis Costello told Esquire‘s Tom Junod in a “What I’ve Learned” profile a few years ago. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to meet you. I just want to look at you.’ He was scary.” When the Costello interviews were collected in a book called The Meaning of Life last year, the five writers who’d conducted the bulk of them got to write a “What I’ve Learned” of their own. The best line in Junod’s? “I don’t want to meet Elvis Costello. I just want to look at him. He is almost as scary as Chuck Berry.”
That’s what kept going through my head when I watched Costello play the Paramount Theatre on Thursday, April 7. At several points, he walked straight to the front of the stage, looked out at the crowd, and accepted its love with a pugnacious near snarl on his face. He looked more like a boxer than a rock star. Costello was hardly in a bad mood, but he was clearly feeling feisty.
Entering to the sound of Dave and Ansel Collins’ “Double Barrel” (“I . . . am the magnificent!”), the band (drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, both from the Attractions, and bassist/backup singer Davey Farragher, collectively dubbed the Imposters) launched right into “Blue Chair,” one of Costello’s most durable (and little-known) pop songs—it’s hidden away on the second half of 1986’s raunchy Blood & Chocolate. He followed that with the same album’s opening song, “Uncomplicated,” immediately establishing that this was going to be some kind of evening. Next was “Brilliant Mistake,” off Costello’s other 1986 album, the roots-minded King of America, which Rhino reissues in a deluxe edition next month, but this version could have been on B&C, too. Then “Radio Radio,” which immediately after “Mistake” felt charged with political subtext: Who else could “[think] he was the king of America” but turn out to be a brilliant mistake than George W. Bush, and who else could the slashing “Radio” be aimed for than Clear Channel?
Effectively speaking, Costello could have ended the concert there and gotten no complaint from me, or, I suspect, much of the audience. Instead, he launched into four songs from last year’s roots-minded The Delivery Man before asking, “How you doing?” with a grin. The new stuff is a touch denser lyrically than the earlier work (which wasn’t exactly laying back in the lyrics department), but its straightforward riffs fit right in with the rest, with “Needle Time” particularly effective. And while he got shticky toward the end (crooning “Alison” from the lip of the stage, singing “Almost Blue” from the orchestra pit, doing a lousy Southern-preacher impersonation before “Monkey to Man”), the reworked arrangement of “When I Was Cruel No. 2″—on album, a sample-hooked spy-movie outtake; at the Paramount, a fury-drenched band number that could have been on, you guessed it, Blood & Chocolate—indicated that he’s still got great work ahead of him.