Rock Concert Review: Elvis Costello — Proudly Flaunting his Dependability and Unpredictability
By Blake Maddux
Elvis Costello loves to visit various regions of the past but wouldn’t dare move to any of them permanently.
Elvis Costello’s aim has truly never been to please.
This is the guy who got banned from Saturday Night Live in 1977 for stopping his band after one lyric of “Less Than Zero” in favor of what quickly became one of his best-known and loved songs, “Radio Radio.” (Maybe it was the mere act of defiance that angered Lorne Michaels, but it’s odd that he was cool with Costello’s performance of a song of which the first words are “Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo.”)
Moreover, he has risked alienating fans and otherwise friendly critics by not closely hewing to a proven formula on record, as demonstrated by his frequent stylistic shifts and collaborations with artists whose audiences might not significantly overlap with his own.
Finally, Costello loves to visit various regions of the past but wouldn’t dare move to any of them permanently. This has resulted in fruitful and satisfying recordings with musical elders such as Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint. It also means that in concert, he is unlikely to exclusively travel – to use the title of his album with the latter – the river in reverse.
At his first visit to Beverly’s Cabot Theatre – which he complimented the beauty of at least twice – on Tuesday, the 68-year-old proudly flaunted both his dependability and unpredictability.
Most importantly to stalwart fans, he seemed perfectly happy to commit exactly half of the setlist to 1977-1982. This still likely left each member of the sold-out crowd disappointed that he didn’t play a particular favorite, but an artist of Costello’s range and level of achievement has the right to show off whatever he wants to. (I have resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably never hear “No Action” live.)
As for the remaining 10 songs, it was unlikely that even the most committed of his listeners would be able to sing every word to each or even most of them. In fact, most people were probably hearing two of them for the first time in their lives, as “I Don’t Want Your Lyndon Johnson” is so obscure that Costello claimed that he and the band “just learnt it” and “Blood & Hot Sauce” is part of the soundtrack to his as yet not produced musical called A Face In the Crowd.
Although three of the first five songs were decades-old classics, the show did not start off perfectly.
There seemed to be a sound problem on “This Year’s Girl,” the 1978 cut that opened the set, leaving Elvis’s voice a bit shrouded. While that problem was quickly corrected for “The Boy Named If,” the title track from his latest album, he sounded a bit strained on “Man Out of Time.”
Thankfully, that issue was also promptly resolved and everything fell into place on “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” from 2020’s Hey Clockface.
What was clearly not an issue at any point in the two-hour set was the quality of his band, which included the two long-tenured Attractions Pete Thomas (drums) and Steve Nieve (keyboards). Rounding out the Imposters lineup were bassist Davey Faragher (a founding member of Cracker, an impressively résuméd session musician, and Imposter since 2001), and veteran Austin-based guitarist Charlie Sexton.
Having someone as seasoned at Sexton at his side certainly didn’t hurt, but Costello demonstrated that he was no slouch on the instrument by handling many of the leads himself.
From the fifth song on, Costello regaled the audience with eight more crowd pleasers from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
These included the one that rendered him unwelcome at Saturday Night Live, “Watching the Detectives”, “Alison” (on which he openly deferred to Sexton for the intro), “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”, “Pump It Up”, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” (the last four of which were among the final five of the evening), and two that I was particularly happy to hear, “Clubland”, and “Accidents Will Happen”.
The remaining 10 selections included nothing from 1983-1997, although it appeared as though he was foreshadowing 1989’s “Veronica” by telling a story — one of the many familial ones that he did — about his grandmother. And 2002-2018 was represented by only “When I Was Cruel No. 2” and “Come the Meantimes”, to which he added snippets of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and The Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail,” respectively.
The one stop in the ‘90s was “Toledo” (with a tacked-on bit of “Funny How Time Slips Away”), a sublime tribute to the late Burt Bacharach, the master songsmith with whom he wrote and recorded 1998’s Painted From Memory and everything included on the recently released The Songs of Bacharach & Costello.
He performed it alone on an acoustic guitar while seated stage left in a small maroon chair. The hush that fell over the crowd was surely indicative of its reverence for the departed artist.
Four tracks from last year’s The Boy Named If (Arts Fuse review) accounted for more than half of the post-2001 output that he offered. This was fine, because the album is good enough to justify what he has somewhat cheekily dubbed this tour: The Boy Named If and Other Favorites. It is as if the nothing if not clever Costello means to imply that his year-old latest material already ranks alongside the most beloved of his career.
Perhaps he didn’t mean it that way, but I think it’s funny to presume that he did.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and five-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.