NewsWhistle, August 6, 2019
Last year's models, this year's concert —
I just saw Elvis Costello and Blondie in concert, so I'm thinking a lot about aging.
What does age have to do with rock and roll? Why do some acts "age well" and others feel like weaker versions of stronger drinks from remembered youth? Is it still rock and roll when your teenage daughter tries to melt into the stadium bench from embarrassment as you dance in the stands to "The Tide Is High"? (Not me, someone I saw this happen to, I swear!)
Emerging into the Forest Hills Stadium from a surprisingly soundproofed vom, "One Way or Another" ballooned out at me. The air was just cool enough; the sun, idyllically setting; the crowd, filtering in as Blondie started their set. After "Hanging on the Telephone," which was known to the people around me in my less than comfortable metal bench in row KK, and "Fun," which was fun, came "Call Me," the massive hit that took me back to the decade in which I pegged my pants, wanted a Cabbage Patch Doll but never got one, and saw Back to the Future an incalculable number of times in the actual movie theater.
Around me, both reassuringly and disturbingly, were people at least ten years older than me, people my age, and people who had been dragged by their parents with varying degrees of resistance. With my right knee aching from the angle at which it was forced to bend as I sat amidst my compatriots in bloating, I pitied all of us in our decay.
Still, Debbie Harry is a great front person. I enjoyed her running commentary and her fans ate it up. She celebrated the sun finally setting over the bleachers by saying: "After all, we are night people. But would the guy at the top of the stands close his legs?" She went on: "A few years ago, we took a big chance. But, you know, things change. Time marches on. This is a song you may remember. It's called "Rapture."
A guy in his 50's next to me snarkily said: "Think she'll remember all the words?" His girlfriend of a similar but more glamorous vintage laughed out of what I took to be habit. Let's call him Rex and her Laurie, though I never learned their names.
As far as I could tell, Debbie Harry remembered all the words to "The Rapture" — especially the proto-rap section that Laurie and Rex sort of sang along with. Then Harry launched into an abbreviated cover of Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road." Because she's Debbie Harry and she can do whatever the hell she wants! And I'm not going to deny it — I took my only video of the night of this cover and sent it in the direction of my 9-year-old, because he loves that song.
The general feeling I perceived in the audience about Debbie Harry was: 1) Let's see what she can still do. And 2) Let's support her effort no matter what.
This is not to say the other band members did not factor in at all. Clem Burk's drumming was loud, hard, fast, and included stick flips. Chris Stein has, in no particular order, dated Debbie Harry, suffered physically, been rumored to be dead, decided to be just friends with Debbie Harry, and produced well-regarded photography books, soundtracks, and other efforts. He might have been playing guitar on stage, where he sat, dressed in black, like a totem to the potential dangers of the New Wave, but I couldn't tell.
Leigh Foxx on bass and Matt Katz Bohen on keyboards did what they were supposed to do — evoke the 1980's. Especially when Bohen whipped out one of those keyboard guitar things that keyboard players used to wear so they could dance while playing the keyboard. And then there was Tommy Kessler on guitar. I recently finished the third season of Stranger Things. Avoiding spoilers, Kessler is the embodiment of the Billy character. All glorious hair, tossing of guitar picks, and tongue tricks visible from Row KK in the bleachers. He is a lion-maned dirty sex god from an era when that was unabashedly desirable. His solos — never-ending in their presence once they got going — were exactly what you would want in a mockumentary about the lead guitar player in a 1980s rock band.
"The Tide Is High"/"Groove Is in the Heart Medley" was enjoyably danceable. Debbie Harry made a comment about the video projection design behind her being brilliant, but too bad you couldn't see it because the night still had not come! There was some instrumental jamming while Debbie Harry did a costume change into something that Rex, next to me, said made her look like a disco ball. And even I, a non-Blondie fan, knew that "Heart of Glass" was coming. It sounded just like the hit record from 1978.
I went to get a beer after that and missed the majority of the two encore songs. But Blondie the band, and Debbie Harry, who is Blondie in her heart of glass, marinated in the applause and left the stage for the stage hands to change over for Elvis Costello and The Imposters.
I stayed for changeover, which was as exciting to me as all of the Blondie concert. Out went the basic rock band set up of Blondie. In came keyboards. Lots of keyboards. A piano, organs of various shapes and sizes, possibly a harpsicord. Instead of being at a remove from the drums and bass section as the keyboard player was in Blondie, the majority of these keyboards sat on a level platform with the newly arrived drum set, creating the impression of a ship being built in the center of the stage. I texted a fellow Elvis Costello fan to say that where there had been a hole, there was now a life raft.
And then the lights dropped and Elvis Costello, with no separation from the Imposters — his backing band comprised of former Attractions, a new bass player, and two R&B back-up singers — floated on stage. Lights rose to "Pump It Up."
From the downbeat, here's the difference between the two acts, and why Elvis Costello was the more compelling. Blondie is an eighties nostalgia act. Elvis Costello comes across as a songwriter working his extensive back catalog while promoting some new songs, with an approach that seeks to reinvigorate his earliest hits with the spirit of what he's into lately.
I admit to having been nervous going into the show about Costello's ability to actually hit the notes he has written. I have seen some pretty embarrassing concert footage, from as recently as 2018, of a painfully out-of-tune Elvis Costello struggling to sing — never acknowledging that struggle, of course, because he is a consummate professional in presentation. But saying that this video was inspiring would be an act of not acknowledging the nakedness of the emperor for fear of embarrassing him.
I am happy to report that, at least in the performance I saw, Costello and his band were on fire and hitting nearly all the notes with verve. I could tell that this venue mattered a lot to Costello — perhaps because of its historical connection to The Beatles, more likely because of Costello's own memories of playing at it in 1982 and 1984 (years he mentioned later in the set).
Elvis Costello is 64. I discovered him and had my own personal Elvis Costello obsession when he was 44 and I was 22. I devoured every one of his albums, even the ones he said he personally hated. At the time, I modeled my own songwriting after his to the best of my ability. I have personal memories attached to many of his songs. "I Want You." Enough said.
The guy who I've called Rex kept up his running commentary for the Elvis Costello set, but instead of challenging the performer, he was reminiscing about how in seventh grade his friend Mickey (or Moe or Morris or something) turned him onto the song "Accidents Will Happen" and that album with the elephants on it. I didn't hear Laurie complaining, but he seemed to sense that she had no interest, promising her repeatedly that they could still leave early; he just wanted to hear a couple more songs. To be clear, I didn't like Rex and couldn't tell who Laurie was at all because Rex would not shut up. When they left (early), I was relieved, and not just to have gained a little more leg room.
Costello, meanwhile, powered through material largely from his first three albums (My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces — the one with the elephants) with some representation of Trust ("Clubland"), Imperial Bedroom ("Beyond Belief") and eventually Get Happy! and Punch the Clock (more on those later).
His new songs from his cohesive and satisfying 2018 album Look Now were not exactly memorable. One was written with Burt Bacharach. One was about jealousy. There was another new song from an upcoming play/musical project that he plunked out at the piano, accompanied only by his backing singers and his primary partner through musical time, Steve Nieve. Costello read the music and lyrics off of an iPad. And yet, this was probably the most musically satisfying of his "new stuff."
Big shock: the crowd connected more profoundly with his material from previous decades, from his and their youth. And yet… and yet… his was not an eighties nostalgia act. The audience was perfectly willing to indulge him as he played through what he's been working on lately. But when he kicked into high gear with "I Can't Stand Up," "High Fidelity," and especially "Everyday I Write the Book" — all musicians playing with dynamic, passionate intensity that showed no sign of aging — nirvana was reached. We might not have danced to recapture our club nights as we had with Blondie, but we locked in and sprang to the kind of attention that comes from performer and audience merging as one.
Costello is undeniably the front man, in name and every other way, but he displays a personal pride in every single one of his musicians, and he made that clear when he introduced each, one at time, on the outro of "Everyday I Write the Book." Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, his female backing singers, by this time, had moved from their back-up positions near bass player Davey Faragher to flank Costello down center, creating a tight R&B vocal unit. Costello introduced Kuroi and Lee and they individually riffed, let loose, did their respective things with unique voices that were allowed to flourish and not be trapped in one decade or another. Steve Nieve (who Costello always calls out as Steve Nah-ive) took his funky organ solo. The "precision" bassist Faragher played a sharp and precise solo unlike anything the famously problematic old Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas would have played. Pete Thomas battered the drums, with not a stick flipped for visual flare.
The encores were "Alison" and "What's So Funny about Peace, Love, and Understanding" — the anthemic yet infectiously pop ditty by Nick Lowe.
I had come with reasonable expectations of Blondie, which were met reasonably. Unlike most of the time in my adult life, my expectations were far exceeded and I was surprised by exactly how much I enjoyed the experience of seeing Elvis Costello in concert. What made me enjoy it so much ultimately was that, for most of the set, I finally stopped thinking about aging and all its implications and just enjoyed the music I had come to hear. I got happy, rediscovered trust, and found that our aims remain true as long as we don't think too much about this year's model. As in, Blondie made me feel old; Elvis Costello made me feel like myself, whatever age I am. But that's just me.
Jim Knable is a playwright, songwriter, and writer of cultural articles and fiction. He has written theater articles for The Brooklyn Rail (most recently a dialogue with Lucas Hnath), film and music reviews and commentary for NewsWhistle (most recently about Nick Cave at the Barclay Center) and Frontier Psychiatrist, interviewed prominent directors and sound designers for the Stage Directors and Choreographers Journal, and interviewed the winners of the 2018 Frederick Douglas Book Prize for a Medium article posted by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
NewsWhistle, August 6, 2019