By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
With all the confidence and cohesion that comes across on Live at Hollywood High, it is difficult to believe that this is a document of a performance that took place only a year after Elvis Costello’s debut album was released. One might think that a live album recorded so early in an artist’s career would be a study in a live act finding their sound, featuring a young group aspiring to greatness and working out the kinks along the way.
The opposite is true.
It is clear that, by 1978, Elvis Costello and the Attractions had been working together closely enough to forge a sound all their own, and one that sounds like it had been planned, rehearsed, and perfected over years of live performances.
And yet they were barely a year in at the time of this concert.
There is something compelling about Elvis Costello’s lyrics, dipped in wordplay and soaked with sarcasm. His vocals here, as on his best work, are unique and striking. Likewise, his band works as one united front, Pete Thomas acting as the backbone of the operation, keeping a steady beat and laying down fills wherever appropriate.
I could listen to Thomas drum all day…
The concert begins with a poignant version of “Accidents Will Happen,” composed of simply a piano and Costello’s lead vocal. I like the album version of this song, but I absolutely love this live version.
The slow, serious sound of the opening track is no indication of what is to come, which becomes apparent as the second song, “Mystery Dance,” is launched. Drawing on references to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and taking sonic cues from blues rock, this song sets the precedent for all the others to come: upbeat, passionate, and infectious.
The highlights are certainly the rockers that come across even better live than they did in the studio, songs like “Lip Service,” “This Year’s Girl,” and “Radio Radio.” Each of these songs attacks human behavior in modern society, and it is interesting to see how these songs are still relevant at the opening of 2010.
In fact, if Costello were to write the second song again, it might be abbreviated to “This Month’s Girl,” or updated to “Internet, Internet” for the second song.
Overall, their pacing and stage presence is outstanding. “Stranger in the House” is about as slow as Costello and the Attractions get in this concert, and yet it does not feel like a series of very similar songs played at the same speed.
Although he does not speak all that often, when Costello does address the crowd, it is to good effect. He knows just how to elicit screams and wild cheers (asking, before playing “This Year’s Girl,” if there are any girls present), and he knows just when to introduce hints of what is to come in the show (announcing at the end of one song that he is about to play “Alison”). This young Elvis Costello is even more funny and quirky than I would have imagined, dedicating “Living in Paradise” to “all the boys on the track, all the boys in the locker room, all the physical jerks…”
How an artist was able to compile such an impressive set list so early in his career, I will never know. But, what I do know is that Live at Hollywood High plays as a greatest hits at some times, and as an homage to deep tracks at others.
Analyze these and other factors as much as you care to; the bottom line is this:
Elvis Costello & the Attractions play their hearts out, as though their tenure in the music industry and in the hearts of their fans depend on it. For me, Costello’s performance functioned in the way all music executives dream of…
…it made me want to buy more of his music!