The tide is high

I need a better phone. ©Joyce Millman
Blurry, sorry! ©Joyce Millman

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

Franz Ferdinand: The North Sea sings

Franz Ferdinand apparently spent the four years since their last release listening to Blondie’s “Call Me” on an endless loop and watching Big 80s marathons — in Norway.

Not that I’m complaining. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (Domino) is the best thing the Glasgow band has ever recorded, a swoony plunge into the coolly beguiling depths of Eurodisco-immersed alterna-dance. It’s a logical progression from their last CD,  Tonight, which was an ambitious, disco-flecked concept album about one long night’s search for sex, or maybe more, from the dark of the club to the cold light of day. Although the band rose to fame on the stabby art-punk of its self-titled 2004 debut (featuring the titanically popular single “Take Me Out”)  and its 2005 followup You Could Have It So Much Better, they took a long layoff to record what would be Tonight, effectively stalling the momentum of their career in an industry where the new-new thing appears twice a day, every day,  leaving fans wondering if the band had dissolved for good.

After their second album, I made the mistake of thinking of Franz Ferdinand as a rock band; songs with insistent hooks or alluring imagery (the chorus of “Take Me Out,” the gay dancefloor seduction of “Michael”) gave you something memorable to latch onto,  the rest were an enjoyable blur. And while charismatic frontman Alex Kapranos has charm and simmering sexual energy to spare, with a bit of David Bowie drama and Bryan Ferry langour in his louche baritone, his furious intelligence and often cruelly self-assesing lyrics tended to get lost in the propulsion and swagger.

After You Can Have It So Much Better, the band was right to take its time figuring itself out. The disco synth-burbles of Tonight were the answer. Set the time machine for 1979, and suddenly, Franz Ferdinand makes perfect sense. Kapranos’s voice, his sexually compelling combination of remoteness, pale insouciance and vulnerability, all fall into context; you can imagine him as the sensitive lad in impeccably-cut suits swanning around in exclusive discos, sending back witty dispatches about the cuisines he’s sampled on his far-flung travels. (Kapranos actually did this in a series of delightful food columns for The Guardian, collected in the book Sound Bites).

Right Thoughts continues Franz Ferdinand’s dance odyssey, coloring its sound with kisses and rolling it in designer sheets. They’re channeling Blondie circa 1979-81 here, echoing the big, metallic dance-punk of the under-appreciated Eat to the Beat album (1979) crossed with the seminal hard-edged disco of “Call Me” (which Franz cover in concert) and the new wave-funk of “Rapture.”  There’s also a dash of mid-’70s Bowie in the way the production marries the human heat of rock guitars to the glittering chill of technology, and a spectacular broad daylight heist of the rhythm line from the Clash’s “This is Radio Clash” (“Evil Eye”).

Not that it’s all backwards-referencing;  being a canny conoisseur of evolving dance modes, Kapranos shares production (under the name “Prince House Rabbit”) with dance-pop, technopop and nu disco royalty Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Bjorn Yttling (of Sweden’s Peter Bjorn and John) and Todd Terje,  the Norwegian DJ and editing artist. Befitting the Scandinavian influence, the lyrics keep coming back around to existentialist themes:  the searcher’s hunger to find life’s meaning, the skeptic’s inability to believe in a higher power. Anxiety jitters through the long-distance relationship in “Bullet”; loneliness washes over the end of an affair in “The Universe Expanded”;  madness explodes in the manic “Treason! Animals.”  Death, of course, is a supporting player.  On “Fresh Strawberries,” Kapranos sings, “We are fresh strawberries/ Fresh burst of red strawberries/ Ripe, turning riper in the bowl/ We will soon be rotten/We will all be forgotten/Half-remembered rumours of the old.” He’s referring to youth and beauty and all of human existence, of course, but there’s a tongue-in-cheek subtext, too, given Franz Ferdinand’s long absence between releases.

But, I won’t lie:  The reason I’m completely addicted to Right Thoughts isn’t its lyrics, although you have to love Kapranos for the punning title “Treason! Animals,” and the vibrator references hiding in plain sight on “Bullet,” and for going all-in with the ’70s vibe in the “key party” analogy of “Brief Encounters.” No, I’m mainly in thrall to the sadistically catchy choruses, and the dance beats that I wish could stretch on and on into infinity. “Stand on the Horizon,” a Kapranos/Terje co-production, has replaced Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as the retro-disco song I want to live inside. I can’t stop listening to this track; I wake up with the swirling, multiply-overdubbed harmonies of the coda in my head:  “The North Sea sings/ ‘Won’t you come to me baby?’/ The North Sea Singing/ ‘Won’t you come to me?”  The four-minute album version isn’t long enough;  luckily, there’s a delirious eight-minute Terje remix available on The North Sea EP, which also includes an extended Terje remix of  “Evil Eye.”

Right Thoughts closes with Kapranos (who’s an atheist) unflinchingly imagining his own funeral and the nothingness beyond in “Goodbye Lovers and Friends,” leaving a litany of instructions:  “I hope you didn’t bring flowers/ Hope you didn’t write a poem/Hope you remember every fight” . . . “Don’t give me virtues that I never had.” The snaky guitar winding  around the verses underscores the venom in Kapranos’s brutal anti-romanticism.  “You can laugh as if we’re still together/ But this really is the end,” is the CD’s last line. If this is also Franz Ferdinand’s suicide note and the band really has made its last record together (perish the thought), at least the radiant, timeless dance grooves of Right Thoughts prove that they’ve taken Blondie’s advice from a track on Eat to the Beat to heart: “Die Young, Stay Pretty.”

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013