It seemed only fitting to spend the night after my “officially eligible for the senior discount” birthday seeing a double bill of Blondie and Elvis Costello at a summer shed venue in the outermost suburbs of the East Bay. After a 2 1/2 hour crawl to the Concord Pavilion through perpetual Bay Area traffic, the consort and I had just enough time to wolf down our picnic dinner in the parking lot, while watching our peers being golf-carted up the mountain from a more distant lot. How can these senior folk be our age cohort? I mean, just look at us! We could pass for … uh … never mind.
It takes more energy to get out to a show these days, but for Elvis, the consort and I will go anywhere (this trek proves it). Costello’s cancer scare a couple of years ago only hardened our determination — he plays anywhere near SF, we’re there. My first Elvis show was in 1979 — I’m so old, I reviewed it for my college newspaper. I’ve seen him so many times over the years that I’ve lost count. By contrast, I last saw Blondie right before the Parallel Lines album hit big, in a small Boston club called the Paradise. She was the diamond-cut visage of New Wave, with a voice like a candy cloud. Musically, Blondie laid the blueprint for the blend of arty pop-punk and Eurodisco that would be followed by artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinand and Lady Gaga.
I mention all of this because attending an Elvis-Blondie concert one day after turning 62 was so on-brand, if you know me, as to be comical. The only thing more perfect could have been a Springsteen show, but, sadly, Bruce would not oblige.
I have no illusions. I’m not a kid anymore. I listen to new artists, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to go stand in a field at some summer festival to see them play live. So pretty much the only concerts I go to these days are ones where I have a seat to fall into when I can’t dance any more. Usually, that means “legacy acts.” Hence the trek to this outdoor venue on top of a sun-bleached mountain in the land of gated subdivisions. Long story short … I’m glad I did. This was no ’80’s nostalgia package. This was a doubleheader of titans.
Elvis Costello was last in the Bay Area just this past December for a long and varied show at the Masonic that revolved around the swell orchestral pop of his latest album Look Now. The co-headlining summer tour with Blondie had each act playing for under two hours. It’s asking a lot of Costello to edit his set down for curfew — with a catalog as deep as his, how do you choose?
The setlist favored the greatest hits (“Radio Radio,” “Alison,” “Pump It Up”) but also worked in a couple of slow-burning wild cards not played before on this tour, “Party Girl,” from Armed Forces, and “Come the Meantimes,” from his collaboration with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost. The latter hit a blues-funk groove that you wished could have gone on all night. Costello was in strong voice (especially at the piano for a soaring ballad “A Face in the Crowd,” as yet unrecorded, from his upcoming Broadway musical adaptation of the movie of the same name) and even stronger guitar form — his crackling solo injected the oft-performed “Watching the Detectives” with new life.
The Attractions — pianist Steve Naive, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher –were, as always, impeccable and limber. Backing vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee add a crucial element to live performances of Costello’s songs of love and revenge — the woman’s presence. Like Steely Dan’s backing vocalists, they serve as Greek chorus, counterpoint and a breath of youth. The interplay between Costello and his vocalists was at its most fun on the Supremes-inspired “Unwanted Number,” in a long riff where Costello shouted out titles with numbers in them (from “One is the loneliest number” to “Ninety-nine and a half won’t do”).
Costello was cheerful and chatty, even up against a curfew. He performed an impersonation of Elvis Presley covering Blondie songs (well-mannered Presley would never have sung the “pain in the ass” line from “Heart of Glass,” Costello assures us), and tossed off some dark topical humor in a remark about an earlier tour stop in Gettysburg, and wanting to see the site of the last Civil War before the next one breaks out. The by-now standard, cathartic finale “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (with a stunning new video backdrop display of Costello’s artwork flashing “Thou Shalt Not Kill”) came much too soon and we were filing out to the wonderfully wicked selection of the 1956 British kids’ tune “Nellie the Elephant,” with its chorus of “Trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump.” I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed in the necessarily shortened set; as Elvis’s shows go, it was a mere snack. But it tasted so good.
Blondie was the opener on this tour, and the audience at Concord seemed to tilt more toward their fans than Elvis’s. Debbie Harry (whose memoir Face It will be published in October) is 74, and her voice is lower than it used to be and showing signs of end-of-tour overuse (she sipped tea throughout, and talk-sung some of the lyrics). But goddess bless her, she is an inspiration to all of us women of a certain vintage who are trying to figure out what “act your age” means. She shows us that it means whatever the hell you want it to mean.
Harry doesn’t give an inch. She took the stage clad in the following: a silver-threaded short-sleeve turtleneck sweater; a black, sparkly high-low-hemmed wrap skirt tied over black leggings; a chunky black belt (possibly containing a fanny pack, it was hard to see from where I was sitting); a black helmet-type hat like those worn by equestrians or possibly London cops; oversized sunglasses; and a billowy silver Mylar-looking anorak. Before the encores, she disappeared from the stage and re-emerged wearing a black and silver ruffled cocoon that was probably designed by Rei Kawakubo for all I know. Her platinum blond signature coif was perfect. She pranced and danced and clowned, all with a big smile on her face. The love traveled both ways.
A white-haired Chris Stein sat to her left throughout the show, wearing dark shades. Clem Burke, who, along with the Attractions’ Pete Thomas is one of the greatest drummers to ever drum, was set up behind Plexiglass baffling. Burke is the only other original member of Blondie in the band besides Harry and Stein, and he looked exactly how you would expect Clem Burke to look. Has he been preserved in amber? (The three original members are joined by bassist Leigh Foxx, lead guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Boher.)
Blondie’s set was one glorious hit after another (“Call Me,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Heart of Glass,” “Rapture”), with a deep cut or two (“Fade Away and Radiate” from Parallel Lines and “Atomic” from Eat to the Beat were a pleasant surprise). And the band played two absolute genius covers, the Lil Nas X/Billy Ray Cyrus hit of the summer “Old Town Road” and the James Bond theme song “From Russia with Love.” Covering “Old Town Road,” a marriage of rap and country, was a reminder that Blondie’s “Rapture” served a similar purpose of taking the sound of one genre and culture into untested territory. “Rapture” was the first (and, for years, only) hip-hop song to be played on MTV. As for “From Russia with Love,” Harry purred it, deadpan, in front of that notorious prank Presidential seal (a Photoshop with the two-headed Russian eagle holding golf clubs), to whoops of solidarity from the crowd.
The highlight for me was Blondie’s reggae cover “The Tide Is High,” which Harry prefaced with a remark about the tide being high for some of us. At the time I took that to be a reference to the climate crisis (Harry is a longtime environmental activist). But this morning, I remembered her shout to the audience at the song’s end, “I’m holding on. I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that. Are you?” Tide and time. Sea levels and the number of candles on the cake, both rising. Fight on, Debbie, you eccentric, irreplaceable diamond.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019