Every new Elvis Costello album arrives with a critical assessment of his late-career eclecticism, which covers Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building pop, Southern rock, Nashville Americana, and many other ticks off his bucket list. If you're cynical, you might say he's become the thing he once railed against: an establishment artist coasting on the good will of his back catalog. If you're generous, you might argue — fairly circuitously — that he's simply rebelling against yesterday's rebellion. Either way, it's worth remembering that he grew up listening to Sinatra and Ellington and covered "My Funny Valentine" as a B-side back in 1978. Four years after releasing his debut, My Aim Is True, he released an album of country music covers.
Because it came first, that angry-young-man intensity is often taken as his default setting, but perhaps Costello's punk-era sound was just another stopover on his odyssey through 20th century popular music. That breadth of interest and influence is apparent in even his earliest material: in its emphatic melodicism, in its clever arrangements, in his osmotic absorption of contemporary styles, even if they were raw (ska, pub rock) rather than refined (jazz, Bacharach). He may have been young, he may have been righteously pissed, but he sounds worldly on those early albums, and especially on Live at the El Mocambo.
Recorded in Toronto on Costello's 1978 tour for My Aim Is True, the album was originally released as a promotional item, survived the 1980s as a bootleg, and finally got a commercial release as part of the 1993 box set 2½ Years. It's now a standalone reissue as the first installment in his new series of live reissues. This version reinstates much of the stage banter that was cut from the '93 version, including Costello's boast that he and the Attractions have come to reclaim Canada for the Crown. For an artist with so many disparate releases under his belt, Costello doesn't have a whole lot of live albums, which makes El Mocambo particularly revealing, even if it does cover only a limited set of songs.
Costello here is a fierce, funny, and intelligent performer, which is certainly no surprise. Nor is the energy with which he and the band pound out raucous versions of "Welcome to the Working Week" and "Lipstick Vogue." Headlong on the studio albums, these songs are ferocious live, and it helps that they have a rowdy crowd in front of them, who whoop, holler, and call out requests for "Alison" (which he doesn't play). One guy yahoos so much he should get a performance credit. It's an electric atmosphere, and the setting brings out the swaggering pre- and early-rock sounds in these songs, suggesting that, even as a young artist, Costello was already fully engaged with the past. Opener "Mystery Dance" sounds like it was built on the same two-note guitar theme as that other Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock," and, on the intro to "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," each instrument seems to be playing in a different style: Bruce Thomas' strutting ska bassline throwing punches at Steve Nieve's New Wave-ish keyboard dodging Costello's swooping guitar. It's hard to keep up.
These are tricky, slippery songs. "Waiting for the End of the World" changes shape almost constantly, as Nieve's keyboard trades off leads with Costello then ducks back into the rhythm section. And just when the setlist reaches a fevered peak, they break into "Little Triggers," giving Costello a surprising amount of room to croon and offsetting the reckless rush of "Lip Service" and "Radio, Radio." They obliterate the reggae rhythms of "Watching the Detectives" but play up the noir mood before launching into a start-stop bridge. And after Costello taunts the audience ("He doesn't think I mean it!"), the Attractions and guitarist Martin Belmont hammer away at the central riff of "Pump It Up" violently, growing more frenzied and frantic with each repetition until the whole show falls apart, ending with a full minute of steady clapping and calls for another encore. It's a painful reminder that Costello hasn't left us wanting more in ages.