Rock Concert Review: Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe — The Rewards and Hazards of Reinterpretation

By Clea Simon

Age certainly wasn’t an issue in terms of energy. Elvis Costello played for a solid two hours with barely a break, running through four decades of music with a heavy emphasis on the old favorites.

Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets, Leader Bank Pavilion on August 15

Elvis Costello. Photo: Steve Carlson via Elvis Costello Facebook

Forty-five years after his commercial debut with his album My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello has compiled one of the great rock-pop catalogs. Songs like “Watching the Detectives” and “Alison” are instantly recognizable, classics of the genre. And, thus, it’s understandable that the artist (born Declan MacManus) might want to play around (more so, even, than he did in 1986’s wonderful “Spinning Wheel” tour, where songs were chosen at random). On Monday night at the Leader Bank Pavilion, he did just that — on the heels of a new album, A Boy Named If, with decidedly mixed results. (Arts Fuse review of A Boy Named If)

There were other factors on Monday, as the almost-68-year-old took the stage: for starters, the condition of his voice, which has been taxed by both age and cancer treatments. To my ears, Costello’s main instrument has recovered somewhat since his last tour. The singer displays greater range and even some of his falsetto has returned. Unfortunately, that was undercut by intonation issues severe enough that this listener wondered if the stage sound was inaudible.

Nick Lowe. Photo via Nick Lowe Facebook

Age certainly wasn’t an issue in terms of energy. Costello played for a solid two hours with barely a break, running through four decades of music with a heavy emphasis on the old favorites. Kicking off with “Accidents Will Happen,” he waded through the often muddy mix, calling out keyboardist Steve Nieve (who finally surfaced from the muck with some notable solos). More to the point was the question of his artistic interpretation, which often worked — though it sometimes made the extended set drag. For example, a slight reworking of “Watching the Detectives” maintained the tune’s dark and brooding tone, stretching out the stinger via a half-rapped extended story about a film noir. It was perfectly in keeping with the original song, but a bit long. “Mystery Dance,” of the same era, was worked into more of a rave-up. The result was that the sharp, fast song grew a bit mushy, losing its sarcastic edge.

The set began to turn around with one of the new numbers, “Penelope Halfpenny.” Introducing it as a remembrance of a teacher who showed the young Declan the possibility of a larger, freer world, the upbeat rocker was likewise a breath of fresh air. When opener Nick Lowe joined Costello for his own “(What’s So Funny) About Peace, Love and Understanding,” the reenergized vibe continued, although as the two traded verses it was nearly impossible not to hear the contrast between Lowe’s on-key singing and Costello’s, which was often not.

The final portion of the night showcased another contrast, one in approach. For, although an artist has the right to interpret his or her older material, he or she should also learn to trust those songs. Closing the show, Costello seemed at last to do just that, ripping through a set’s worth of tunes pretty much as they were originally released. Exceptions were made for older voices and for changes in personnel, such as the addition of Austin, Texas (and Dylan regular) guitarist Charlie Sexton, who threw in the occasional country-tinged flourish. Starting with “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and working through “Pump It Up” and “Radio, Radio,” Costello was on fire. This wasn’t the nostalgia part of the evening — the new “Magnificent Hurt” fit in beautifully, with its sardonic wail, as did “Farewell, OK.” By the time Costello began closing things down with “Alison,” from whose lyrics the title of his debut album was cribbed, the artist and the art seemed in sync again — if not always perfectly in tune.

Opening with a too-short set, the always courtly Nick Lowe loped through much of his own considerable catalog, showcasing the country side of tunes like “And So It Goes” and “Raging Eyes.” Backed by Los Straitjackets (who highlighted their own mini-set with “My Heart Must Go On” from Titanic), he even found a Tejano take on “Half a Boy and Half a Man.” This was reinterpretation done subtly, and it worked.

Clea Simon’s most recent novel is Hold Me Down (Polis). She can be reached at


  1. Rob Kuczik on August 18, 2022 at 11:09 pm

    Thank you for an honest review
    When I ventured to remark that EC had a problem fans much younger than myself took umbrage claiming that his vocals were beyond criticism
    This has been evident for over five years.
    However I had no knowledge of throat cancer. Thad was a revelation and I hope it is in remission. I’ve been a fan since early 1977 and always wallowed in his vocal expertise.

    • Clea Simon on August 24, 2022 at 4:42 pm

      Not throat cancer, Rob. Prostate cancer, which was reportedly caught early and we hope successfully treated, but I’d heard speculation that the treatment (chemo? I don’t know) may have contributed to his vocal problems. Pure speculation, but I wanted to make allowances (now reading it through, I see how I kept adding “a bit” to soften things). Thanks for the support.

    • Matthew on September 2, 2022 at 11:15 am

      Hi Rob
      I’ve seen Elvis over 50 times beginning from the early 80s…just 6 years ago during his solo “Detour” shows I thought he was at his peak as a singer and performer…
      Sadly My rock hero is a shell of his former self…
      EC can’t sing any longer…
      I saw his tour last year and almost left in the middle
      I was bored…
      Two night ago I saw his performance in San Diego..
      His voice was better than last last year…
      It had improved from the sound of a fingernails down a chalkboard
      A frog’s croak…
      It hurts writing this since I am a lifelong fan…
      I felt bad as I left the San Diego show…it was Packed and none of the concert goers had seen the REAL EC…
      Heck our Elvis singing “It’s Time” solo on YouTube…
      It’s a phenomenal performance

  2. Pat Hand on August 19, 2022 at 12:47 pm

    Good review. I saw show at Wolf Trap a couple of nights later and it was about the same. Some of the arrangements were too long, though the highlight of the evening was his reworking of “Hetty O’Hara Confidential”.

  3. Brad Figel on August 20, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    I also saw the show at Wolf Trap. Nick Lowe stole the show. I think Elvis should open for him. Lowe’s voice remains outstanding and Los Straightjackets were incredible. EC didn’t read the crowd well – and his rant during “watching the defectives” was painful. Elvis you are not Patty Smith….. I do applaud his energy – but wish we could have heard more classic tunes and a bit more of his iconic voice. Also think EC should have given Lowe credit for writing “what’s so funny”. One of the great songs , and they sang it well together but give credit where credit is due.

    • Jon on August 21, 2022 at 8:58 am

      Voice quality aside the bane of most shows is being at the mercy of whomever runs the sound board. Even when sitting near it I find the vocals are sacrificed

    • John Fitzgerald on August 22, 2022 at 8:30 am

      The guy is 68 and has cancer, what did you expect. Not many people would be able to do what he did or does for 2 hours every night. It is what is, to rip the guy for not being 200 percent vocally doesn’t make sense.

      • Clea Simon on August 24, 2022 at 4:44 pm

        As a critic, it’s my job to give an honest evaluation. Plenty of people enjoyed the show, but, yeah, it is what it is (and fwiw, Nick Lowe is 73.)

  4. Jerry C on August 20, 2022 at 3:22 pm

    I also saw the show at Wolf Trap. Ditto to everything Pat & Brad said.

  5. Bruce Terrell on August 21, 2022 at 2:23 pm

    Agree with everything re: overlong arrangements and EC’s stage patter. It may have been my seats but the sound was abysmal. Too bass heavy, bass drum too loud and too much echo. EC’s Jazzmaster was very distorted and unclear when songs would have benefitted from cleaner tone. People in our area had fingers in their ears, as did I oft-times. We left before end basically because the volume and mix was too painful. I’ve never had that problem before at Wolf Trap.

  6. Al on August 22, 2022 at 6:39 am

    A well-written and thoughtful review, thanks.

  7. Steve Horton on August 23, 2022 at 9:28 am

    I saw the show in Selbyville, DE, the last stop on their East Coast tour. The sound was great — much better than the Boston show. The set list was the same EXCEPT Nick and EC did not do a duet on “What’s So Funny” and “Indoor Fireworks.” I was extremely disappointed. Although I have been an EC fan from the beginning, Nick is my favorite.

  8. Elizabeth on August 23, 2022 at 11:05 am

    I’ve often compared EC’s voice to that of eating dark chocolate. Rich, full of biting flavor, meltingly delicious and My ears devour it!! Nick’s voice is like adding the ripest tastiest fruits to that chocolate. Always great to hear the two come together.

  9. Gaz on August 24, 2022 at 3:29 am

    Watched elvis and the imposters at ipswich earlier this year we were also joined by many who walked before the end, dreadful sound and new material needs ditching also over priced

  10. Dwight on August 24, 2022 at 8:50 am

    I found the show disappointing with respect to the song selections. Yeah, the sound and his singing was off at times, but I thought that was inconsequential. The bigger issue for me was there were a lot of songs that were unfamiliar to me that went on too long. Perhaps his more serious fans or music aficionados were entertained. But I talked to a bunch of people (strangers) during the show and the walk back to the hotel, and they didn’t like a lot of the material or the pace of the show (too slow). I think people wanted more nostalgia. We all agreed Nick Lowe was terrific and his set was way too short.

  11. Tom on August 25, 2022 at 8:29 am

    Thanks for the well-written review. I saw the show in NYC and my impressions were very similar. I also agree with another commenter that Hetty was terrific.

  12. JonG on August 26, 2022 at 12:26 pm

    Interesting comment about “unfamiliar” material. I’ve read other comments that the middle of the show dragged because there was too much new stuff. Elvis is a songwriter with new material, so it’s understandable that he would want to perform it. And the sequencing seemed about right: play the hits at the beginning and end and play the new stuff in the middle. I do remember people sitting near me at a U2 show at Boston Garden complaining that they were playing too much of “the new stuff.” “Remember what got you here!” one fan shouted. The new stuff was “Achtung Baby.”

  13. Justin Thyme on February 16, 2023 at 1:02 am

    Ah, Elvis C.

    I’m chastened for nay saying E.C.’s damaged vocals before considering the reasons. Sadly, it now makes sense.

    The problem for those who admire Costello are the countless shows where he was so outstanding. Having borne witness to his 5 straight nights in 1985 (?!) at the Beverly Hill’s Beverly Theater, the bar became set so high that I presumed he’d always be that singer. Now, it appears a giant like Costello may have to actually stop performing. He’s just too painful to watch.

    Makes one wonder how Morrissey – at this late date – still maintains such live vocal strength. Not many of these power houses left who consistently put it over.

    By the way, Nick Lowe is timeless.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts