Live Review:
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

by Mitch Goldman

Mercer Arena, Seattle, WA 9/1/96

By the time Elvis Costello and the Attractions ended their U.S. tour in Seattle for the city's annual music/arts fest, Bumbershoot, the word was already out among fans: this was to be Elvis's last tour with the Attractions, and maybe his last tour ever. The bespectacled one certainly gave that impression on the Jay Leno show the previous Monday evening where he performed "You Bowed Down" (from the spectacular new EC/Attractions' record All This Useless Beauty), telling Jay that after this tour, he was retiring from the music biz.

It's no surprise that Elvis might be ending his on-again, off-again relationship with the Attractions (Pete Thomas, drums; Bruce Thomas, bass; Steve Nieve, keyboards), his original band, whom he left behind after 1984's Goodbye Cruel World (reuniting briefly with them two years later for Blood and Chocolate). Their breakup was filled with much acrimony, so it was an EC fan's dream when they reunited in 1994 for the wonderful album Brutal Youth and an ensuing tour that found the foursome in classic form, playing old songs and new with intensity and passion.

But rumors began circulating during this summer's tour that Elvis and the band were once again not getting along (his feuds with Bruce during the '80s were infamous, leading to Bruce's writing of a thinly disguised novel about his relationship with Elvis), and by the time they hit the stage for a late show at Seattle's sold-out Mercer Arena, there was a feeling among the faithful in attendance that this might be the last time any of us saw Elvis playing with these three brilliant musicians.

Opening with perhaps their single greatest song, Imperial Bedroom's "Man Out Of Time", the Attractions showed no sign of dissension in the ranks. Throughout the show, all four played with feeling and commitment, most especially keyboardist Steve Nieve, who may be one of the most unique musicians of the punk and post-punk eras. His playing is at once moving and playful, as he throws in song references, changes keyboard sounds twice in one measure, and generally provides a one-man sound layer that is an evening's entertainment in itself. Meshed with the Thomas's (no relation!) screwed-down yet fluid rhythms and Elvis's ever-increasingly dynamic guitar playing, and you have one of the most powerful ensembles in rock.

And let's not forget Elvis's singing; his voice gets better all the time, retaining the distinct reediness of his punk-era sound while boasting fuller range and incredible volume control (a quality the whole band has mastered; particularly during the duet segment of tunes featuring just Steve and Elvis, wherein at times you could almost hear a pin drop in the decrepit arena, the songs got so quiet). Last but central, the songs themselves make a Costello show what it is. While his shows vary substantially from night to night, the Seattle show had an incredibly moving and enjoyable song selection. From the "Pump it Up" b-side "Big Tears" to the final dark triumph of the ten-minute show-closing "I Want You" the show's pace never hit a slack point.

Elvis's duets with Nieve were particularly moving, transforming tunes like "Party Girl" and "Oliver's Army" (both from 1979's Armed Forces) into more personal, intimate experiences than their recorded counterparts. And many of the full-band arrangements were drastically different from the studio originals: "13 Steps Lead Down" retained its tempo but had a totally different keyboard dynamic; "Pumpit Up" featured Nieve on accordion, giving the punk anthem a zydeco feel; "Green Shirt" was completely slowed down, giving it an even more ominous atmosphere than past versions; and "You Bowed Down", like the performance on the Leno show, found EC jettisoning the single's infectious chorus for a new lyric and melody line.

But the moments that found the audience and the band locked together in an emotional evening of celebration and eventual parting were also the most fun: the "I know" sing-along at the end of "Accidents will Happen"; the slip into "Instant Karma" in the center of an-otherwise-deadly-serious set closing "Riot Act"; the long, intense jam that followed "Rocking Horse Road" (closing the third of four encore sets); the sheer exuberance of "(What's so Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Elvis told the crowd "this is the last time I'll see you for a long time, maybe forever" prior to finishing the show with his longest tune, the dark masterpiece from Blood and Chocolate, "I Want You." Two and a half hours after they hit the stage, the house lights went on at 1:30 in the morning, bringing reality back to the exhausted faithful. Whether Elvis ever comes back or not, we all knew one thing: we won't see a show like that again, anytime soon. If this really is Elvis's final U.S. show, it was a worthy, fitting, and totally satisfying goodbye.

SETLIST (10:58 - 1:28):

Man Out of Time->
Big Tears
Clown Strike
Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?
Little Atoms
13 Steps Lead Down
Party Girl*
Poor Fractured Atlas*
Oliver's Army**
All This Useless Beauty**
Distorted Angel->
(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea->
Who's that Lady?
Pump it Up***->
Slow Down***
Just About Glad***
Riot Act->
Instant Karma->
Riot Act


Beyond Belief->
Accidents Will Happen
Complicated Shadows->
Gotta Get Out

The Other End of the Telescope->
Green Shirt->
Rocking Horse Road

You Bowed Down->
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

I Want to Vanish
I Want You

*acoustic with Elvis and Steve
**acoustic with full band
***Steve on accordion

Copyright © 1996

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