Summer Concert Season Blasts Off

Elvis Costello's aim is true, the Pretenders are the talk of the town, and Pink Floyd brings down the wall

THE summer concert schedule transports pop-music lovers back to the late 1970s or early '80s. Three of the top touring shows that recently made New York appearances were Elvis Costello, reunited with his original band the Attractions; the Pretenders, doing their first tour in years; and Pink Floyd, who, despite the loss of Roger Waters, has turned out a smash hit album, ``The Division Bell,'' and whose stadium tour is setting attendance records around the country.

Costello hasn't toured with the Attractions since 1986, but with them he made some of his best albums, including such seminal releases as ``My Aim Is True,'' ``This Year's Model,'' and ``Armed Forces.'' The group (consisting of Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums, and Bruce Thomas on bass) recently played with Costello on his new album ``Brutal Youth.'' The concert, which played in Central Park, contained much new material and a generous sampling of songs from earlier albums, many of which Costello hasn't played in public in years.

The last time Costello toured, he performed ``The Juliet Letters'' with the Brodsky Quartet, and it was a highly decorous event. So the impact of seeing him play pure rock-and-roll with his original band was intensified. The singer, in fine voice and even better mood, seemed charged up by the occasion. Not only did the weak material from the new album sound better in concert, more powerful and less fussy, but the older songs played better than ever. Sticking more or less to the original arrangements, featuring the powerful drumming of Thomas and the swirling keyboards of Nieve, the group played muscular versions of some of Costello's best songs, including ``Accidents Will Happen,'' ``Alison,'' ``Watching the Detectives,'' ``Pump It Up,'' and many others. But this was no nostalgia show. The power of the songs was a perfect illustration of the musical vitality of the punk-new wave era.

Costello's soulfulness

Costello wasn't above having a little stylistic fun, either. Commenting dryly that ``some of you older people in the audience may remember this, it comes from the 1980s,'' he played a speeded-up version of his ``Every Day I Write the Book,'' and his performance of ``Alison'' segued into a cover of ``Tracks of My Tears'' that demonstrated his under-appreciated talent for soulful singing.

When Costello melodramatically announced at the end of the show, ``We don't know when we'll see you again, or if we'll ever see you again,'' it wasn't coming from the pique of a singer who wants to break free of his band. It was coming from the restless artistic spirit of one of the most vital singer-songwriters of the rock era. Seeing him live, with the best band he has ever played with, is a summer musical thrill not to be missed.

By the way, the show is also one of the better values of the summer, since the opening act could be headliners themselves, the Canadian group Crash Test Dummies. A ubiquitous MTV presence with their supremely catchy hit, ``Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,'' this group offers a melodic blend of pop-rock, and lead singer Brad Roberts's deep bass voice is one of the most distinctive in rock. He also offers witty deadpan commentary, with a delivery that blends Tom Snyder and Frank Zappa.

Pretenders on the road

There can be no reunion for the Pretenders, since the group has gone through many personnel changes (two of its original members died in drug-related incidents). But the band's heart and soul has always been singer-songwriter Chrissie Hynde, and the group is basically whoever accompanies her. The new tour, in support of the release ``Last of the Independents,'' her first album since 1990, does reunite her with original drummer Martin Chambers. They are currently playing clubs around the country, and seeing them perform in such intimate surroundings is a treat.

The new album has already yielded a hit single, ``Night in My Veins,'' and it features quite a few strong songs, including ``Hollywood Perfume,'' ``I'll Stand by You,'' and ``Money Talk.'' Most of the new songs were played in concert, but so was a generous proportion of her early material, including versions of ``Talk of the Town,'' ``Middle of the Road,'' ``Downtown (Akron),'' and ``Message of Love.'' The new band members, Adam Seymour on guitar, Andy Hobson on bass, and Zeb Jameson, provided solid support, playing music that they probably first heard when they were kids.

Hynde, lean in black jeans, ripped through her material with powerful voice and ferocious guitar-playing; she provided ample evidence that she has allowed far too much time to elapse between her recordings and concert appearances. In a year where there were so few notable female rockers that the Grammy committee eliminated the category, her return is welcome.

The Pink Floyd effect

Pink Floyd is touring for the first time in seven years, but when you have an album that is a perpetual seller on the order of ``Dark Side of the Moon,'' frequent tours aren't necessary. Certainly, they have pulled out all the stops for this one, which is playing stadiums around the world, and touched down in New York for two nights at Yankee Stadium. The music in a Pink Floyd show is merely a soundtrack for an elaborate display of lights, lasers, and special effects, dwarfing everything else on the current concert scene. The stage alone is the biggest I have ever seen, a behemoth that is covered by a massive canopy.

The first half of the show concentrates on songs from the new album, which amble pleasantly in their neo-psychedelic way. The excitement is saved for the second half, when the band plays classics from ``Dark Side of the Moon,'' ``Wish You Were Here,'' and ``The Wall.'' David Gilmour's guitar-playing was fluid and energetic, and the group, which could barely be seen under the barrage of smoke and lights, seemed well rehearsed.

The audience, which perhaps rivals only that of the Grateful Dead in its fervor and its desire to lose themselves in the atmosphere, loved every minute. They erupted in paroxysms of delight at the unveiling of the special effects, which included two giant inflatable pigs the size of Macy's Parade balloons (with searchlights for eyes), a huge circular screen on which surrealistic films were projected, a massive metal structure that seemed to sprout in midfield, and the world's largest mirrored ball, which transformed the entire stadium into a huge swirling discotheque. The sound was the best I have ever encountered at a concert, with music and sound effects seeming to pop out from every corner of the stadium.

In a summer concert season that has featured ticket prices in the stratosphere ($35 to $75 for this show), Pink Floyd at least provides plenty for the money.

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