Oh, I just don't know where to begin …
Well, I do actually. With fear of Elvis or, maybe fear about Elvis. We're talking Costello, of course. But I also had fear about Elvis Presley, when in early August 1977 the RCA promo man offered me tickets to the kickoff of Elvis's latest comeback tour, a concert in a Portland, Maine arena. I was Music Director at a college radio station in the state — that's why the potential perk came my way — and I politely declined. I feared — you know — fat Elvis, Vegas Elvis, the Elvis who didn't matter anymore in a punk rock world or — as John Lennon so acidly put it — the Elvis died when he joined the Army. (I later got straight about all that; thanks Peter Guralnick.)
That was Elvis No. 1. My fear about Elvis Costello prior to the July 23rd concert at Boston's Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion was fear of the mature, tame, old-man, hat-wearing Elvis, the Elvis I really hadn't paid much attention to in more than a decade. (Note: Elvis is but two years older than I am.)
What I'd heard of his 21st century music didn't strike me as much more than "well-crafted." Well intentioned maybe, probably lyrically astute, but bland. Mind you, I wasn't paying rapt attention, but what I heard didn't penetrate my core anymore and I lost interest. Which is to say I've been off Elvis's mystery train for a spell.
The Elvis I saw in 1978 at Boston's Orpheum Theatre penetrated the core very much — even if he played maybe hour tops (no encore) and turned up the howling guitar feedback at the end to drive us out of the room. He had those power-packed first two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, from which to pluck and man did he and the Attractions kick out the jams. Anger, tainted love, bitterness and spite never felt so good.
That isn't the Elvis Costello of 2019, of course, and shouldn't be. He's not angry — anymore. He's a cagey entertainer and he's been that for some time. (Remember the Spinning Songbook tour of 1986, where he acted like a game show host and he and the band played whatever song the wheel stopped at?)
But what I saw and heard in Boston this week shook me in a way I hadn't quite expected. He frontloaded the show toward those glory days — starting with "Pump It Up," "Miracle Man," "Clubland," Accidents Will Happen" and "Green Shirt," hit mid-set stride with "Watching the Detectives," "Less Than Zero" and "This Year's Girl" and closed the regular set climatically wit "Alison." For encores, "Man Out of Time." "Radio, Radio" and "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding."
On "Alison": Most people still think it's this sweet, romantic song, but El's protagonist really thinks "someone should put out the big light because I can't stand to see you that way." That means killing her.
On "Radio, Radio": one of my favorite Costello songs ever — y'all know the SNL story and the last-second switcheroo — and so pertinent back then, with FM radio shutting out most of the fresh punk rockers and Costello singing he wanted "to bite the hand the feeds me." Today … radio airplay means diddly squat, there are few rock or alt-rock stations around, and it's all about streaming and Spotify and lack of gatekeepers and access-for-all and the song seems, well, quaint. Ferocious but quaint. Odd mix.
On "Green Shirt": Tense and pulsing, it may be the best song about how TV newscasts (and newscasters). "She takes all the red, yellow, orange and green and turns them into black and white," sings Elvis. (On the backing scrim, a slot machine-like trio of changing images, with FAKE popping up every so often. Guessing El is referring not to Trump's idea of fake news but the reality of fake news spread by Trump.) It's a perfect song about how the female newscaster flirts with us (always!) but more about how complexities are winnowed down into simplicity for the TV audience.
On "Watching the Detectives": A great tension-filled, noir-ish song from the get-go, with multiple interpretations. It's punctuated by one of the greatest killing lines in rock — "It only takes my little fingers to blow you away" — and Tuesday night it was accompanied by visuals depicting a myriad of pulp novels and movies on the video scrim: Naked Alibi, The Lodger, Born to Kill etc.
Elvis's backing band consisted of three Imposters, bassist Danny Faragher and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve. They were complemented by two soul sisters, backing vocalists, Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, who did some stellar turns, especially on an elongated funked-up jam on "Everyday I Write the Book." Elvis didn't treat these songs as dusty, old artefacts or obligatory hits. (He did joke after the first few songs that having gotten the "hits" out of the way; he'd now do Justin Bieber songs. He did not follow through with the threat.)
He did do a bit of Duran Duran's "Rio" channeling the first Elvis. "I need to imagine that Elvis Presley hadn't died in 1977," said the living Elvis, "and had gone on to do the hits of the '80s. Didn't we want him to sing Morrissey?" Elvis added that he wouldn't want to hear Morrissey sing Morrissey (anymore), no doubt given Moz's very vocal pivot to the right wing. "But he would have been perfect for 'Rio.'" After a snatch of that, he chatted up his opening, co-headlining pals Blondie envisioning Presley doing "Heart of Glass." Whereupon he jokingly chastised himself for rambling and launched into Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," a highlight of the High Fidelity album. Well played.
This year's Elvis was appropriately loquacious, but focused, determined to give us a few new morsels ("Mr. and Mrs. Hush," "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter") without demanding that we must pay attention to the new stuff dammit! They fit in; they worked; it was an all-encompassing Elvis we got.
I go back with Blondie, too. Numerous club and theater gigs, including the closing shebang at CBGB in 2006. I saw them at Boston's House of Blues at 2010 and if they weren't running on empty it was close to it. But there was a great revival of spirit in 2017 (aided by a strong new album, Pollinator, to pluck from) and that winning streak continued with this year's set at the same shed, now under yet another bank's name.
Deborah Harry is NOT Blondie — remember the early adverts stressing "Blondie is a group"? — but she's always been the vocal and focal point. If she's not the punk rock Marilyn Monroe she was in 1979, she's still pretty damn sassy and sexy four decades down the road, all silvery and sparkly, sporting a blond wig.
And the band, anchored as always by ex-husband/co-songwriter/guitarist Chris Stein and Keith Moon-ish drummer Clem Burke — provided her with more than just a cushion to lay upon. They pushed it, too, stretching out "Rapture" and "Atomic" with noisy/artful guitar and drums excursions, with the ever-seated Stein seeming more and more like Blondie's Robert Fripp, an eminence grise adding bent-note, prog-rock nuance and texture, if not visible emotion. Frankly, he's pretty stoic up there. Harry and the "new" guys, bassist Leigh Foxx, guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen handle that emotional end.
What's it all about? Blondie always mixed distant cool and hot passion, tongue-in-cheek humor, arch observation and street-wise savvy. They were comfortable, as it turned out, with a variety of styles barely hinted at on their debut LP.
On Tuesday night, the incendiary "Atomic" — which really has no obvious meaning per se — suggested something nuclear, what with the backing visuals of flames and fallout shelter signs. That, too, was a theme suggested earlier during the quiet, menacing "Fade Away and Radiate." Good thing we can just see those as nostalgia, given Reagan is gone and we no longer have to worry about Armageddon. (Just kidding, folks. Boy am I kidding. We're still living in, as Costello sang at the end of his set, "troubled times.")
Blondie began as the "girl group" of NYC punk and started the show in that vein with "One Way Or Another" and the Nerves' "Hanging on the Telephone" — upbeat, hook-packed songs that sounded cheerful, but underneath you realize the sly singer is going to give her man the slip (in the first one) and she's just struck by frustration and inertia in the second.
As with Costello later, you again realized what a strong catalog Blondie has — the lilting "Maria," the island rhythmic sway of "The Tide Is High," the new wave/disco pulse of "Call Me" and "Heart of Glass." The latter closed the regular set — a glass heart shattering on the video behind them — and Blondie was back with Harry's solo funk tune, "You're Too Hot" — "Don't touch me, you're too hot" being the entirety of the lyrics — and then the gorgeous "Dreaming," with that lovely self-referential tie-in lyric of "Fade away - and radiate" tucked in.
Blondie and Elvis Costello and the Imposters each had 90-minute sets. They both, as my grade school teachers might have said, used their time wisely. All in all, a very good night for the older folks of late-'70s new wave, both fans and performers.