Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Two Costellos: Elvis Costello Live at the El Mocambo & Live at Hollywood High

What a difference three months makes! The two recorded 1978 Elvis Costello shows – Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High – are completely different from each other in tone, attitude and musicianship but, more importantly, they mark the coming of age and the maturation of Costello as a significant presence on the musical scene.

Costello, coming off a derided show in New York, landed in Toronto for a late night set, scheduled for March 6 at the city’s fabled El Mocambo club. The concert was to be broadcast live on radio; when news got out, the city erupted into a frenzy. People began lining up almost half a day before the 11:30 pm show, in the generally vain hope of scoring one of the 300 tickets available (minus those going to industry and record folk, of course).

By the time Costello hit the stage, expectations were remarkably high. To say he exceeded them was an understatement. Live at the El Mocambo, all 49 minutes of it (not including the encores which were not broadcast or recorded), is one of the best live shows ever put to disc, right up there with the 1971 Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East. As with that show, you can only wish you’d been there when you listen to it.

Remember, though he had been on Saturday Night Live in late 1977, where he pissed off the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels by performing the anti-media song "Radio, Radio," against Michael’s wishes. Costello was still pretty much an unknown quantity to most people, with only two (superb) albums, My Aim is True and This Year’s Model, to his credit. And the latter disc was actually 11 days away from its official release when Costello performed in Toronto. After the concert, unknown was the last word that could be used to describe Costello.

With the concert’s 14 tracks more or less equally split between the two albums, Costello delivered a blistering set – including the now classic tracks "Watching the Detectives," "Mystery Dance," "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio" – that was filled with anger, urgency and remarkable power. It’s almost like he had something to prove and in a way, after the bad reviews from his New York gig, and in the wake of some skepticism about his credibility as a punk artist, his depth and staying power, he did. Listening to the El Mocambo concert, however, you won’t think about whether or not Costello is the real deal (of course he is), but about how remarkably gifted he is, as a songwriter and performer. (Amazingly, he was only 23 years old during the span of the two concerts.) With minimal introductions, Costello and (his band) the Attractions simply go from one song to another, punching them out with rapid-fire energy and force. It’s a riveting set and one that dispelled all doubts about his talent, commitment and abilities on the part of anyone who heard the show live or on the radio, as most Torontonians did.

By the time he got to Los Angeles for his 72-minute Hollywood High gig on June 4, 1978, it was a very different Costello on stage. More relaxed and calm, he spoke at greater length before launching into his songs, and performed 20 tracks, including some new ones that would end up on his third album, Armed Forces (released in early 1979). Though almost every track from the El Mocambo concert is also played at the Hollywood High gig, you could be forgiven for not recognizing that the same person was on stage during both shows. The Hollywood High's "Watching the Detectives," for example, is almost insouciant, compared to the El Mocambo version. He and the band play it at such a leisurely and lyrical pace, it sounds almost like a buoyant lost Clash track instead of the angry, profane anthem that was performed in Toronto. "(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea," one of my favourites of his songs, is also another creature in Los Angeles, where Costello doesn’t seem all that worked up about actually having to go to the damn place; he’s enjoying himself too much on stage as he stretches out the song with some adroit guitar work. In Toronto, by contrast, he spits out fury at the very idea of going to Chelsea. As I said, two utterly different interpretations of the same song, a state of affairs which distinguished pretty much every track - "Lip Service," "Miracle Man," "Radio, Radio," "Waiting for the End of the World" - the two shows shared in common, except, perhaps, for "Pump It Up"; that fiery rabble rouser couldn't really be rendered mellow, no matter how good a mood Costello was in.

Here is a sample from the El Mocambo show with EC performing that blazing version of "Pump it Up":

With the enormous critical and popular success of the El Mocambo gig, still no doubt ringing in his ears, Costello could afford to be more laid back and confident in L.A. He likely always knew he was a great artist, but the Toronto concert could not help but give him the impetus to push past his detractors and continue to showcase how terrific he knew he could be. The Hollywood High concert, equally as compelling as the El Mocambo gig, showcases an artist at the top of his powers and suggests someone who is no fleeting star but a singer/songwriter for the ages.

Now in 2010, it’s a given that Costello is one of the most important rockers to ever come down the pike; he’s even graduated to his own TV talk show, Spectacle, where he performs with and interviews his compatriots, influences and musical newcomers. But back in 1978, that was not evident at all, at least until he came to Toronto and launched a career that has continued to the present day. The El Mocambo album was not officially released until 1993 and then only as part of a box set, which featured Costello’s first three albums in expanded editions. Universal only released it as a solo disc last year. Live at Hollywood High only came out this year, though three select cuts from the concert were offered as a promo vinyl EP with the release of Armed Forces, while other tracks found their way to some of the remastered and expanded Costello CDs recently put out in North America. Listening to the two live CDs back to back, you realize that it’s not often you get to hear an artist coming into his own but with Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High, you get to hear someone do so twice. This is where it all really started. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to get those concerts on tape for future audiences to enjoy and savour.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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