Thirty years after recording the classic My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello and Clover were finally ready for their live debut. The British-born Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and the Marin County country-rock band came together Thursday at San Francisco’s intimate Great American Music Hall for two shows at the invitation of North Bay musician Austin de Lone, an old friend of everyone involved. The $100-a-ticket event benefitted the Richard de Lone Special Housing Fund, which assists people with Prader-Willi Syndrome. The non-profit is named after de Lone’s 9-year-old son, who suffers from the genetic disorder.
It was the first chance ever for a live crowd to hear timeless tracks like "Alison" performed "the way they’re supposed to go," as Costello told the late crowd. At the time of the recording, the American band didn’t have a permit to play in England (though Costello joked they tried to fool the authorities by claiming it was a homegrown band called the Shamrocks). Shortly after recording the debut album, Costello assembled the Attractions, and the members of Clover went on to individual success as writers and producers and as members of Huey Lewis & the News, the Doobie Brothers and other bands.
Attractions/Imposters drummer Pete Thomas joined Clover members John McFee on guitar, John Ciambotti on bass and Sean Hopper on keyboards to play both sides of the original English LP, from "Welcome to the Working Week" to "Waiting for the End of the World," with Costello. Between songs, Costello shared stories about the recording process, which took place on "sick" days from his work as a computer operator.
It sounded as if it could have been 30 hours since they recorded the tracks, not 30 years. Costello’s voice has, if anything, become richer over the years, and the band re-created the 1977 arrangements with ease and authority.
The quintet left the stage briefly at the conclusion of "End of the World" before returning for "Watching the Detectives," a single that was later added to the U.S. version of the album. Though the Attractions performed on the original recording, Clover pulled it off fine, with Hopper nailing Steve Nieve’s organ part.
Costello returned alone with an acoustic guitar to play some songs from the era that didn’t make it to the album, some of which, like "Wave a White Flag" and "Jump Up," have been added as bonus tracks to subsequent CD reissues. It was interesting for hard-core fans, but the quality didn’t measure up, and in the naked setting Costello’s vocals were starting to show the effects of playing two shows back to back. Most of these songs fell by the wayside for a reason. It was like settling for The Torrents of Spring when you really want to sink your teeth into The Sun Also Rises.
But soon the band returned for an arrangement of "Living in Paradise" that differed significantly from the version that ended up on Costello’s second album, This Year’s Model. Then McFee switched to pedal steel and ex-Lost Planet Airmen guitarist Bill Kirchen, who opened the show in a duet with de Lone, joined in for a couple of country-tinged tunes that were deemed too twangy for those new-wavey times, "Stranger in the House" and "Radio Sweetheart." They also pulled out a nifty Costello composition from back then that was never even worked up at the time with the band, apparently called "I Don’t Want to Go Home," which Costello read from a thick binder full of song lyrics.
Though Costello was, of course, the main attraction, many Bay Area old-timers were clearly delighted to see Clover again. A mention of the band’s old lead singer, Alex Call, got a better reaction that that of its most famous alumnus, Huey Lewis. Late in the evening, Costello did a bang-up version of the old Call composition "Mr. Moon," which he dedicated to Call’s ailing wife. (Singer Carlene Carter, who recorded the song back in the day, was seated in the balcony with her husband, Joe Breen. Carter, looking healthy after years of battling drug problems, said she has a new recording slated to come out in February on Yep Roc. Costello said Carter’s ex-husband Nick Lowe, who produced My Aim Is True, was planning to come down for the benefit when it was scheduled for October, but the date had to be pushed back when Costello was invited to open a tour for Bob Dylan.)
It was now after 12:30, but Costello returned once more with de Lone on piano to sing "Happy Birthday" to his longtime manager, Gill Taylor, and then to send birthday greetings to someone in the audience, Bonnie Raitt. Raitt declined an invitation to join him on stage, so Costello instead dedicated a lovely version of "Love Has No Pride" to her, accompanied by de Lone on piano. The evening ended, appropriately enough, with the whole ensemble bashing out Nick Lowe’s "What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding."