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Elvis Costello Live at the El Mocambo Review

Live. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Pop’s angriest man caught live in 1978.

Paul Lester 2009

Live at the El Mocambo is the first in a series of complete Elvis Costello concert recordings to be released over the next year or so. It has been available before as a limited-edition Canadian pressing, and thereafter as a bootleg and a bonus disc among 1993’s four-CD box set 2 1/2 Years. But this is the first time the live set has received a proper stand-alone release and so provides an opportunity to reassess Costello at a crucial point in his career, and to seriously consider his value as a live performer.

He was, in a word, explosive. Recorded on March 6, 1978 – less than two weeks before the release of second album, This Year’s Model – at the sold-out El Mocambo in Toronto, Canada and broadcast live by CHUM-FM, it finds Costello backed by a new band and playing a mix of material from his debut album My Aim Is True and its brilliant, incendiary follow-up.

That new band, the Attractions – comprising Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums – set fire to the relatively tame versions of the debut album material, which was originally played by session musicians (basically, Clover, who became Huey Lewis’ News), and establish themselves as arguably the most fearsome live unit of the era, more punk than the punks.

Costello himself sounds as though he can barely contain his excitement and venom – he spits out introductions to (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea, Lipstick Vogue and Radio, Radio while the band regularly hits the red on the intensity level. Less Than Zero is the notorious ‘Dallas Version’, with references to the Kennedy assassination and all, an early indication of Costello’s lack of reverence towards American holy cows a year ahead of the legendary Ray Charles incident that served to derail his career in the States.

Throughout this warts-and-all recording, you can hear the audience’s every whoop and holler and feel the heat of the club as the Attractions rattle along at breakneck speed (apart from on Little Triggers). Meanwhile, a seething, snarling Costello chews the scenery, creating a new paradigm for post-punk pop - the angry brainiac – that to date no one has followed up.

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