Story and Photo by Gordon Friedman
English singer-songwriter Elvis Costello performed at Bumbershoot’s main stage early Saturday evening, just one among a list of high-profile acts slotted for the bandstand. While Costello may be lauded as a pioneer of punk and new wave, his performance at Bumbershoot was lackluster. Yes – Costello has produced great music. His discography includes 30 studio albums and more than 60 singles spanning his three decade career. His album This Year’s Model is in the top 100 of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Rolling Stone also listed Costello as the 80th greatest artist ever. Quite the compliment. And, I suppose it’s deserved. This Year’s Model is an excellent album, and Costello’s work is consistently critically acclaimed for its edgy-pop feel carried by brilliant guitar playing.
But, it seems that Costello may be seeing the music industry (and his own career) as a means to an end as of late, rather than a pursuit of love. In a BBC documentary about his career, Costello said that as he gets older, he tours when he needs money and isn’t writing any more music. “That’s it,” he said. Well, that’s pretty much the opposite of saying, “I do it ‘cause I love it.” I think that’s part of what was missing at the Bumbershoot performance. You could see it in his eyes. It was actually awkward. The look on Costello’s face was one of feigned interest and rote motion. There was energy, there was rhythm – but it appeared almost entirely forced.
Admittedly, this wasn’t Costello’s best audience. About half the crowd were old enough to collect Social Security, looking strangely about at the teens and tweens who were mostly stoned and ready to twerk for the upcoming Wu Tang Clan set. The two opposing forces in the audience at times looked at each other scathingly. You geriatrics thought the booty shorts wearing pre-teens. You smell of the marijuana beam the older folk, squinting through bifocals. All the while, Costello pays his dues – “Hello, Seattle…” he says. I’m not sure the city was listening.
The show went on, and an eyebrow had to be raised at the configuration of the Bumbershoot main stage. Placed in Memorial Stadium, usually a football field, the stage was faced towards the concrete bleachers on the 50-yard line (unlike past years when it was located in the end zone). The result of this change is that with every hit on a drum, a crashing echo spills off the concrete stands and back into the crowd creating a distracting Ping-Pong noise. Not what you want to hear for an hour straight. At times, it all seemed to fall apart. The band was playing, but the tense nature of the stadium and its crowd detracted from the classic tunes. But, who knows. When Costello needs to pay more bills, we may seem him visit Seattle again and have another chance to judge.