The New Wave legend is on tour with longtime cohort Nick Lowe through August
Elvis Costello started his Aug. 15th show at Boston’s Leader Bank Pavilion with “Accidents Will Happen,” and its prescient opening line, “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin …”
He’s often done that in concert and, in fact, it’s been his standard opener on this tour with The Imposters, called The Boy Named If and Other Favourites.
Sometimes, in writing about Costello – and there’s a load of stuff to pack in these days – I don’t know where to begin either, and I’ve been doing this 40+ years. But this time, I do.
I’m going to start at the end, which, in another way, is also the beginning. The final song of the two-hour-five-minute show, of course, was “Alison,” the not-as-sweet-as-it-seems ballad that “broke” him in America. (Broke, in a manner of speaking.) I first saw Costello at Boston’s Orpheum Theater, spring of 1978, but I didn’t see earlier gigs at the smaller Paradise Theater, Dec 9 and 10 the previous year, when EC was fresh off the boat (or plane, as it were).
He had two albums to draw upon, My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model, and before playing “Alison” at the Pavilion, he joked about the Paradise gigs, “We only had about 30 minutes and we wanted to get down to 22.” (Not quite true, history tells us The Attractions played about 40 minutes, but point made.) Then, he explained they didn’t play “Alison” (this is true) because “It made it too easy for you to like us.” (Laughter, probably true.) He added, also, “We didn’t have enough fingers to play it,” and on this night guest Imposter, former Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton, deftly handled the intro.
AUDIO: Elvis Costello “Alison”
Those were the days of the angry, young Elvis – all slam-bam songs, no chitter-chatter. It may have been a pose, probably was – he once told me Sean Penn learned his petulant act from him – but it worked. The anger-revenge-guilt-resentment super-pack of motivation filled the songs and transferred to the presentation of the music. (Certainly, it was still the case at the 55-minute gig I saw later at the Orpheum – he had the sound guys turn up the feedback at them
end of the set to drive us out of the hall before we could even think “encore.”) Those of us who go back that far with Costello have those memories seared into our brains.
But for some time now – decades really – we’ve been seeing the uber-generous, loquacious raconteur that the more mature singer-songwriter-guitarist has become. He is every bit The Entertainer.
Which (finally) brings us back to this year’s Elvis. The Imposters are two-thirds of The Attractions – ace keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas – plus bassist/double bassist Davy Faragher (and now Sexton).
But before we go too much further, a semi-self-correction: I said the show opened with “Accidents” – and that was the live kickoff – though what preceded it (on tape) was “Surrender to the Rhythm,” a song written by Lowe and covered by Costello and childhood pal-musician Allan Mayes, when they played out as a group called Rusty as teens. It was recently put on record by Costello and Mayes on an EP called The Resurrection of Rusty. He didn’t play anything from it, but it’s worth noting, this soft opening with implicit currency.
The only thing that was really indulgent here – and only in a manner of speaking really – is how he structured the middle portion of the set, playing newer and/or less familiar material and/or radically revamped older songs. It came when he brought out singer Nicole Atkins to share the spotlight and join him for “I’ll Wear It Proudly,” “My Most Beautiful Mistake,” “Still Too Soon To Know,” “You Belong to Me,” “Penelope Halfpenny” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
Four of these came from the latest LP, The Boy Named If, and, although I concur with the critical consensus that it’s likely Costello’s best, most rocking record since Blood and Chocolate, it’s not A-level or, frankly, overly familiar to most El fans (including me). This period was, yes, the stretch where people sat down or got up and wandered the concourse, grabbed a drink, took a leak or what have you.
But – let’s face it – we like the idea that Costello’s not completely rooted in past glory, that the art of songwriting continues to infuse the job of performance. Kinda like Neil Young. So, we can grumble a bit about song selection – I won’t but I could – and wish a few of those Costello-Atkins songs had been excised. But that so-so bit on the midsection is not the take I want to stick with you. What I want to stress is that 10 days away from his 68th birthday, Elvis Costello remains a force to be reckoned with in concert, still maybe the Dylan of the punk/new wave generation – Dylan-esque in his re-arranging material – like “Mystery Dance,” “You Belong To Me” and “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”) – continuing to turn out scads of new music (whatever the demand no matter that few people buy music) and even nicking Sexton to play guitar. He does, though, speak about a zillion more words to the crowd than ol’ Bob.
The best re-tooling was “Watching the Detectives,” still the best piece of new wave noir in my book, which oozed and stretched and curdled, with Elvis injecting parts of “Invisible Lady” into it. The line “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake” is just killer and the song’s still something of a mystery to me in that I think it’s about that girl watching all this drama play out on a TV movie, not being a participant in the “daughter’s disappearance.” Costello pretty much spoke-sang that during the song – “I was just a boy watching a late-night movie.”
I also liked his introductory exposition before “Penelope Halfpenny,” about growing up Catholic and wondering how this Confession thing could wash all that original sin off his soul. (Boy, he’s not alone in that!) There were various mortal sins he knew he couldn’t have committed as a child – he checked off the list – but he had to confess something and decided upon adultery. “I didn’t know what it was, but it sounded like it was fun.”
“Green Shirt” was an early highlight – extended, and not as tightly coiled perhaps as it once was with Nieve’s organ rushing all over it, but still very impactful. It remains a clever exploration of how TV news boils everything down the black and white, while the guy watching TV – Elvis – kind of yearns for that teasing, flirting female newsreader.
Lowe – who agreeably opened the night with the backing of the masked Los Straitjackets – joined Costello for “Indoor Fireworks” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” That song has quite a history: An obscure album track on a Brinsley Schwarz album (Lowe’s ‘70s pub rock band), heard sincerely (if at all) during the end of the hippie era, and then somewhat ironically or even sarcastically when Costello picked up on it and popularized it during the punk era. (Maybe that was just because Costello belted it out and no one thought this was a sentiment he might share without snark. Coulda been our fault.) At any rate, the pendulum has fully shifted back toward sincerity for some time now – it’s all about unity! – in either Lowe or Costello’s hands, and the two joined forces to sing that two-thirds of the way through Costello’s set.
We knew it was ramp-up time when Costello and company roared into “Pump It Up,” “Radio, Radio” (a bit in Spanish, remember last year’s Spanish Model LP?) and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” (An aside on “Radio, Radio” – still the most vicious radio song ever, albeit the context of terrestrial radio’s importance has changed so much over time. It’s more nostalgia now than blows-against-the-empire. Still, I like recalling those days when FM radio was our frenemy.)
The mind-blower of the set was “I Want You,” a 6:45 high point of Blood & Chocolate back in 1986, reworked into a 12-minute plus stunner of whisper-to-a-scream dynamics – want and need and desire all tangled up and busted open with dual electric lead guitar from Costello and Sexton. Ups, downs and turnarounds. Breathless.
As noted, “Alison” closed the show. A reminder: This is a nasty-ass song that sounds like it isn’t. But consider: “Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking/When I hear the silly things that you say/I think somebody better put out the big light/’Cause I can’t stand to see you this way.”
Put out the big light? He’s talking about killing her, folks! Look back on it all these years – think of all the daughters named Alison in the late ‘70s and ‘80s because of this, think of the sentimental whoosh the song still brings – and you gotta hand it to young El. It may have been the song he didn’t wanna play way back when because it made it too easy for us to like him, but if you listen to it, he wasn’t pulling punches. Didn’t then, doesn’t now.
VIDEO: Elvis Costello and The Imposters on Colbert