Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Live at the Boch Center, Boston – Washing the Defectives

Elvis Costello burst upon the rock scene in 1977 as one of the angry young men of the punk/New Wave (r)evolution. His first three albums – My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces – are classics of great, explosive rock and occasional balladry.

But this is not 1977 and at 64 years of age and with a wife (Diana Krall) and two 11-year-old sons, he is not particularly angry. In fact, during his long career, I’ve watched him progress from full-on rocker to R&B soul man to balladeer. I haven’t kept up with every single album he’s done (30 studio!) but I check in occasionally including listening to the album behind which he’s touring, Look Now.

Frankly, I didn’t find it be breaking any new ground and also thought it was much too ballad-heavy. And so at least on record, it seemed that EC was now much more influenced by his sometime co-songwriter Burt Bacharach and the more mellow side of his other co-songwriter, Paul McCartney.

And so when I got tickets to this show I thought, hmm, well, which Elvis will show up, the balladeer/R&B guy or the rocker? My wife likes EC quite a bit and so, without really checking out any songlists or YouTube or anything we decided to dive right in.

So what was the show like and which Elvis showed up? Well, all of them in a sense because he played 26 songs over the course of about three hours, mixing it up between the old and the new.

First the good news – the band is absolutely crackerjack and they sound fantastic. Tight. He’s touring with two of the guys that were the Attractions and who recorded much of his early work – Steve Nieve on keyboards and one of my favorite drummers of all time, Pete Thomas. Along for the tour is bassist Davey Faragher and two female backup singers whose names, alas, I cannot find anywhere.

The show started off with the triad of “This Year’s Girl,” “Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind,” and “Clubland.” So it seemed like we were gonna rock all night and keep the ballads and R&B to a minimum.

Alas. The show leaned heavily toward the Look Now sound which Allmusic characterizes by saying it “isn’t rock & roll so much as it’s pop that blends the craft of classic Brill Building tunes of the ’60s with the narrative maturity of classic Broadway musicals and the sort of ballads that were once the purview of classic jazz vocalists.”

Which is great if it’s Sunday morning and you’re reading the New York Times over a cup of coffee but not so great when you’re in an auditorium of people jacked up to hear EC pump it up.

Don’t get me wrong here – to be clear I enjoyed the show. But I liked it when I so much wanted to love it. As mentioned, I haven’t really kept up with him and at one point he played five songs in a row that I neither knew nor was much thrilled about.

And so it’s clear that in this part of career, Elvis has very much fashioned his band as an R&B revue heavy on ballads with the occasional rock tune thrown in. (I would love it to have been exactly the reverse.) He just loves, loves, loves to sing ballads and that’s fine but, meh.

Because the thing is, he proved several times that when he wants to dip into his back catalog and do some of those numbers, he can pull it off and it feels more like Boston’s Orpheum or Paradise (both of which he name-checked) in 1978 and less like Burt Elvis McCartney.

Here he is doing a rendition of “Watching the Detectives.” I was primed for him to play it and had camera ready. But then a couple ran out and I thought, maybe their kid is sick. But no, just a couple of alcoholic assholes who can’t survive a show without making a beer run so they can fuck it up for everybody else. So this starts a little late.

He followed this up with the great “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror.” But we were now halfway through the show and I recognized maybe half the songs. Eventually, he got to “Alison” which he now does in a more soulful fashion with his two leggy backup singers. (Note the old-timey microphones which may or may not be a tribute to his big band dad.)

His last pre-encore tune was “Everyday I Write the Book.” Now that’s a song I really like but weirdly, this tune seemed to get the crowd worked up more than anything prior. So maybe this was EC crowd second shift. (My wife and I got a kick out of the couple in front of us. When they weren’t up dancing – and he had a great ‘bro dance – they were canoodling and at one point the wife tells me he had his hand down her shirt. So they had a real good time.)

The encore went on for nine songs and really, just felt like a continuation of the show. He did a ballad version of “Accidents Will Happen,” then another ballad from the new album then the great “(I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea.) “Then eventually “Pump it Up.” Then more ballads. You see? That’s not a fucking encore! My wife got it right – play a couple of hot, “up” tunes that we can all dance and freak out to.

This was the last song. I didn’t record it but it’s from another recent show:

Anyway, as mentioned up front, I really, really wanted to love this show and really wanted to write a review about how much I loved it. But the best I can say is that I enjoyed it, sometimes quite a bit and then other times not so much.

But again the band sounded great .And if EC said he was touring again (minus backup singers) and he was going to play his first three albums, I’d go. If I want to hear ballads all night, I’ll go see James Taylor or Josh Groban.

Setlist is here:

 

 

 

 

49 thoughts on “Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Live at the Boch Center, Boston – Washing the Defectives

    1. It may well be, I don’t know. He had long since been established by then with a much grittier, more hard-edged sound. I do like that song. Like Springsteen, he’s been around so long with so many different styles and genres that his audience is probably at least three different audiences with different sets of expectations.

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        1. No he was definitely an “underground” kind of act, for sure. I don’t think he’s had anything approaching a hit (perhaps minus work with Bacharach) since “Veronica’ in late ’80’s.

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        2. It looks like Veronica is his only other top 40 hit on the main charts (#19), although he had some other entries on the Modern Rock charts. He did better with albums though – Armed Forces cracked the top ten. It’s interesting looking at chart placings sometimes – he hit the top ten pretty consistently in the UK.

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        3. Yeah, and he was popular here from day One and has remained so. As we walked to the venue it was clear that the audience was pretty jazzed to see him. He can still sell out a 3500-seat venue. Of the New Wavers, he, Sting, David Byrne and Graham Parker seem to be standing. I think he and Sting may vie for the most popular in these parts. I was super-glad I saw the show, despite my misgivings.

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        4. Right. Good point. Yeah, Sting and Elvis are household names over here, Graham Parker, Weller, even David Byrne, not so much. I think that Debbie Harry pops her head up every now and again.

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  1. He has so much material to draw from. On the ‘Pump It Up/What’s So Funny’ clip you added, Yeah these guys are still rockers at heart. I haven’t seen the Boss for years but it was always a rock n roll show first with a few others mixed in. I like Pete’s drumming also. Sounds like it was still a good show. I still like it when the old guys rock out.

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    1. Yeah, it was definitely a good show. He pours himself into every number, that’s for sure. I guess for me if there had been a few less ballads, a few more tunes I recognized, at least some of them rockers, then yeah. But boy, use the encore to kill the audience. “Pump it Up/Oliver’s Army/What’s So Funny/Veronica./Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes. ” I would have left there weeping I’d be so happy.

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      1. I remember seeing Graham Parker and the Rumor and it was fantastic. Then he did an album called Live : Alone In America. He was alone but he still sounded fantastic. Like Elvis now , he has so much material. How do you choose. I guess you give your people a mix or just say ‘A Rock N Roll Night With EC’ and go nuts.

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  2. I’ve heard all his albums up through “Punch the Clock,” with “Trust” being my favorite. I agree, those were his glory years. I think his voice gets in the way of doing a ballad justice. Unlike many of his English peers, he definitely seems taken with white American culture (country music, Jerry Garcia, Burt Bacharach, film noir…Lou Costello).

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    1. Yes, his voice is very much of an acquired taste. I do like him on some of his ballads. I’ll say this – he certainly throws himself into them. You will doubtless be amused by the fact that he started one song by quoting “The Look of Love.” His tastes are pretty (small c) catholic. Google his 500 favorite or must-hear albums sometime. Makes for Interesting reading if you haven’t already. As to “Trust,” I’ll have to give that a spin. My favorite of his later years is “Spike.”

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      1. Brutal Youth Doc. ‘!3 Steps’ sounds like it could have been on the first 3 albums. It gets rockin, Really good record by EC. Back to the original line up plus Dan Hill and Nick Lowe. You hear Pete’s skins all over this one. Especially on ‘Rocking Horse Road’

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        1. Just listened to “13 Steps.” Yeah, I know that tune. Good one. You’re right about Pete. Snapping snare drum. I meant to mention in my review of the show that EC’s got the angriest guitar since Neil Young.

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  3. I perused that Elvis Costello list. Where does he find the time to listen to all this? Very, very eclectic. I can’t comment on the classical, opera, crooner, rap/hip-hop he listed, since I don’t listen to that stuff. But I thought it was a good list, with some strange choices (Groucho Marx? Blondie?). I’m not surprised he omitted the Doors, one of my favorite bands. One of the top music rags in England listed its RS-styled “GREATEST 200 ALBUMS,” and not one Doors record was listed. I scanned their list for a full 20 minutes, my blood pressure slowly spiking…nothing. I guess their music is uniquely American, or something. But I was, er, “gobsmacked.”

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    1. Well, bear in mind this list likely represents a lifetime of listening. His father was a big band leader of some renown in England. I read EC’s autobio and his father used to bring home records all the time which he greedily absorbed. (Early Beatles acetates!)

      As to him omitting the Doors, yeah he even takes the time to SAY he’s doing that. However, I feel your pain. He lists the Grateful Dead here as well as in his autobio. ZERO in either about the Allmans, a band that was from every indication, a hit or miss phenomenon over in the UK for reasons I cannot explain.

      I spent a summer in London in 1976. It was amazing when I compared the UK and US record listings. There was crossover but not nearly as much as I might have expected. Some stuff just catches fire, some doesn’t. I cannot explain it.

      I’m posting EC’s article here should anyone with the initials CB happen to stumble upon this conversation. Say what you will about Elvis, he is a true discerning musicologist. (Although, that said, I am absolutely going to have to send him a copy of At Fillmore East. Hell, even Elton loved it! Maybe he’d dig Morrison Hotel too but I’ll defer to you on that.

      https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2000/11/elvis-costello-500-favorite-albums

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        1. Pete , Doc and CB are Doors fans and that is all that counts (So is Hotfox63. He just did a take on ‘Alabama Song’)’ I’ll have to look at what old Elvis is listening to. I know he was a Dan Hicks fan.

          (I have a Morrison story I’ll share with you guys over a few beers and a cigar one day)

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      1. I stumbled onto this response Doc ( I cancelled my subscription to VF a while back). I will have a better look at this. Always interesting to see what people dig. Abba off the bat. Right away EC and CB are not listening to the same thing. But as I went down his list (just to the H’s ) he and CB are on the same page with a lot. I was right about the Dan Hicks.
        As would be the case with you and Pete, lots of common ground but a few what the @#$&&^% is he listening to that %**&^% for?

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  4. Armed Forces and Delivery Man are my two favourite Costello albums. The two that really hit me… but I haven’t heard a great many.

    And regardless of how pedestrian he might get with the ballads, there’s no way that it’s as dull as an evening of Taylor or Groban, surely?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I never even fucking HEARD of Delivery Man. Losing touch. As to the ballads, no just exaggerating for impact. I think Elvis has become so enamored of singing ballads he’s lost a little focus. Seriously. If you’re gonna have an encore, have an encore for crissakes.

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