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
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.
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.