Though Elvis was the obvious focal point of the show, it was nearly impossible to keep one's eyes off of Steve Nieve, certainly the world's most aerobic keyboard player. During the first five numbers, he dropped to his knees often enough to make you think Shane Stant was hiding underneath his piano with a lead pipe. Drummer Thomas trilled like a brick of firecrackers that just got tossed into a steel trash can, leaving bassist Bruce Thomas to fill up any available space with bottom. Just like the old days. All that was missing was Elvis' persistent sneer and pigeon-toed stance--pre-'82 mainstays for the man once called "the Sultan of Spite."

The Mesa show amply demonstrated that Elvis can still rock with the reckless abandon of yore, even after turning 40 and touring with a string quartet.

True, some of the menace of "Lipstick Vogue" was gone, but as a celebratory encore, it was no less thrilling. Costello himself seemed genuinely surprised that this devoted crowd cheered loudest whenever he coaxed Neil Youngish white noise from his Fender Jazzmaster. Never one known for his ax-wielding prowess (he's gone as far as billing himself Little Hands of Concrete on several albums), Costello nonetheless pulled off a riveting and emotional solo at the close of "Party Girl." Things even got downright playful when he engaged in a call and response with Nieve during "Clown Strike," ending with the keyboardist tossing in a few bars of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. "I don't know how the hell that happened," Costello shrugged.

Unlike Pink Floyd's stadium extravaganza last month, this show's prop tally consisted solely of one tiny bust of Beethoven on Steve Nieve's monitor. And, even though the set leaned heavily on the first three albums, you could hardly call this a "greatest-hits show," since Costello omitted his two lone Top 40 hits, "Veronica" and "Everyday I Write the Book." Instead, he juxtaposed a dozen Brutal Youth songs with 15 older favorites, neither sounding terribly out of place. In fact, given the new album's characteristic brittle sound, the live show sounded even more produced and polished than the studio work, which may qualify as a rock n' roll first. Although Elvis Costello and the Attractions may still sound like last year's model, the new material proves that both were built to last. Crash Test Dummies opened up the show while it was still daylight, to better catch people wearing pajamas. The band saved its two hits for last, "Pajamas in the Daytime" and "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," which sticks to the roof of your mind long after you've forgotten the rest of this group's repertoire. Although entertaining, something about lead singer Brad Center's stage demeanor is off-putting, particularly in the efficient way he introduced the other members of the group, oozing with the clipped insincerity of a flight attendant indicating where the emergency exits are.--Serene Dominic Southern Spirit Tour 94: .38 Special, Marshall Tucker Band, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Outlaws and Barefoot Servants

Compton Terrace
May 17, 1994

Judging from the paltry few vehicles parked in Compton Terrace's vast and dusty lots at concert time, and the not-so-steady stream filtering in, the verdict was plain: Southern Spirit was a severe stiff.

Yes, instead of the raucous, rootin'-tootin' throngs of glory days past (and, perhaps, present among other sheds along the 43-show haul), this aging, five-ring circus of ersatz grits rockers--Barefoot Servants, Outlaws, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Marshall Tucker Band and .38 Special--would be plying its ancient trade before but a small, intimate gathering.

The tour's sponsoring rock station had been giving away tickets by the fistfuls all week, but its competition last Tuesday evening was ferocious: Junior Brown had lured the hip country crowd to Scottsdale, Elvis Costello was holding court in deepest, darkest Mesa and--Spirit slayer of them all--your Phoenix Suns were tangling with the Houston Rockets in the NBA playoffs.

When was the last time a Phoenix Tuesday night offered so many entertainment ops?

But you know, it could've been worse. After all, it was a beautiful, balmy evening on the desert and, by the time the tour's middle offering, the T-Birds, took the stage, about a third of the Terrace's rolling hillsides and steel reserved seats were filled with enthusiastic, if largely lubricated, Southern-rock fans.

Just watching them would prove to be among the entertainments offered: Harley-Davidson was well-represented via black tee shirts, including Sturgis rally tees commemorating the past two decades of that annual South Dakota event. There were plenty of thinning-haired, big-bellied biker dudes with their tattooed molls around--and, in one representative setting, with their trio of pajama-clad towheads, all hunkered down on a pink blanket. A small, awful, ugly stand of skinheads glared menacingly toward women and small children, but clearly wanted no part of the Harley hogsters: This tour may have been dubbed "Bubbapalooza" by one media wag, but there were precious few be-Stetsoned cowkids on the premises.

Still, there was music. The Outlaws, in their prime a marginally talented, derivative band, opened the show promptly at 5 p.m. and proved again they are marginally talented, derivative--and now old, too. The Barefoot Servants looked old (their bass player was a dead ringer for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi), but this obscure act boasted a sharp, hungry sound thick with hard-guitar blues and raw, mean rock. One of their eight tunes, "Drivin' My Muscle Car," was especially sinewy and promising. Their self-titled CD might well be worth a listen.

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