TVD Live: Elvis Costello with Nick Lowe and Los Straightjackets at Wolf Trap, 8/18

It’s gratifying to have any Elvis Costello concert come around after two years of pandemic postponements. But the one that finally took the stage at Wolf Trap in Virginia last week had the added advantage of being opened by Nick Lowe, his longtime colleague, producer, and influencer.

It was a version of “Surrender to the Rhythm” originated by Lowe’s old band Brinsley Schwarz that was playing as Costello appeared on stage. Costello’s version came on his latest recording, marking 50 years since he and a friend recording under the name Rusty tried to release a record of such covers they did at the time.

Costello told a story about approaching Lowe back then as fans and hopefuls and being shooed off. Eventually Lowe would produce six Costello albums, play bass on a dozen of his songs, and otherwise cross paths through the years.

It was Lowe’s ringing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?” that was the climax of the rewarding show with the two trading its memorable, ever-timely verses. Lowe had come back on stage (in a third dashing outfit) to duet on “Indoor Fireworks,” a Costello song that Lowe had released a year before its author did on The King of America. Frankly their harmonies weren’t great, but it was almost touching to see the two together on stage making an effort.

Costello’s headlining set was a freewheeling one for the huge crowd (who looked to be averaging the singer’s age, which turns 68 this week). As such, they wanted to hear songs that ignited his aggressively creative career. They were rewarded with the frequent concert-starter “Accidents will Happen” (likely because of its irresistible opening line, “I just don’t know where to begin”). But also “Green Shirt” and, before long, “Mystery Dance.” In between, he’d fit in songs from this century that few seemed very familiar with, such as “Hetty O’Hara’s Confidential” and “Either Side of the Same Town.”

The band may have been overly loud with a jarring mix; and Costello’s voice was a bit ragged (especially coming after the smooth tones of Lowe’s mellower approach). Early on, he sang low when he used to go high on “Accidents Will Happen.” He came with some mighty talents though from the original Attractions, now performing as the Imposters, with Steve Nieve on keyboards and heavy-hitting Pete Thomas on drums, and Davey Farager, an American who has been part of the band for 20 years, held down bass.

But with Costello himself doing fewer of the guitar leads, he added to the group the Texas journeyman Charlie Sexton, who has played with a number of artists, including Bob Dylan for a three year stint. While Sexton could be counted on for an assured blues fill here and there, he often didn’t have the sting of Costello’s original recordings. Things may have reached its most challenging point during a nine minute version of “Watching the Detectives” that took forays to the Charles Mingus collaboration “Invisible Lady” and the 2018 ballad “Isabelle in Tears.”

Costello was bolstered by the backing vocals of New Jersey’s Nicole Atkins (recently in town on her own headlining tour) stepping up to duet on the new “My Most Beautiful Mistake” and on “Still Too Soon to Know,” one of a couple of songs from 1994’s Brutal Youth (the other being the driving “Just About Glad”)

He found his footing in the second half of his show, doing assured performances of other songs from his 2022 The Boy Named If. He did five altogether, including “The Man You Love to Hate,” “Penelope Halfpenny,” and the terrific “Magnificent Hurt.” At last, here were songs that suited his voice, that the band knew and could infuse with freshness and were introduced with some charm.

Costello suffers from being a bit too prolific—he’s written some 654 songs according to a recent count—and is forced by marketplace demands to go back and forth in concert between his earliest ravers everybody knows and the newest songs few know. Missing are a vast number of works from in between—of his masterful Imperial Bedroom days, more from King of America, or any of the work he’s done with greats from Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint to Paul McCartney.

At least his work with Lowe over the year was featured in grand style. Lowe at 73 seemed at the top of his game if only because his set was so much shorter. His backing by the American instrumental surf rockers Los Straightjackets seemed an odd marriage when they first got together a few years back. By now, though, they are most simpatico, giving a boost to Lowe’s own classics from “So It Goes” to “Cruel to Be Kind,” while adding tasteful backing to his more mature offerings, from “Without Love” and the throbbing ballad “You Inspire Me.”

Lowe left the stage to Los Straightjackets in their Mexican wrestling masks so he could change into another crisp shirt and allow them to rock through their originals “Katanga!” and “University Blvd.,” written about a nearby Beltway exit (guitarist Eddie Angel was once part of the DC rockabilly band scene). It gave a momentary local flavor to an evening otherwise given to English pop specialists.

Accidents Will Happen
Green Shirt
Either Side of the Same Town
Hetty O’Hara Confidential
Mystery Dance
Watching the Detectives / Invisible Lady / Isabelle in Tears
My Most Beautiful Mistake
Still Too Soon to Know
Just About Glad
The Man You Love to Hate
Penelope Halfpenny
What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?
Magnificent Hurt
(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
Pump It Up
Indoor Fireworks
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

So It Goes
Ragin’ Eyes
Without Love
You Inspire Me
I Live on a Battlefield
Tokyo Bay
University Blvd.
Half a Boy and Half a Man
Cruel to Be Kind
When I Write the Book

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