Live Review: Elvis Costello & The Imposters And Blondie Pump It Up At L.A.’s Greek Theater

Roberto Ricciuti / Redferns / Getty Images
– Blondie
Debbie Harry is her eclectic self when her band plays SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 14.
Watching the bands of one’s youth grow older and mature can be painful, but Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Elvis Costello and Blondie weren’t content to rest on their laurels – or their greatest hits – but continue to push the envelope in intriguing ways. This summer’s co-headlining tour, with original Blondie members Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke, et al, opening for Costello’s Imposters is the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of an old-time baseball doubleheader, in this case two classic bands for the price of one ticket.

In the wake of the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the graying audience – some with their kids in tow – queued up at the numerous metal detectors to get in for the show, the ninth in an attenuated 12-city summer shed tour that wraps with dates at the Santa Barbara Bowl (August 7), San Francisco’s Concord Pavilion (August 8) and Seattle’s Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery (August 10) which is proving a potent, complementary package.

Of the two groups, Blondie – steadily improving as a live act with heavy metal riff-shredder Tommy Kessler, keyboardist (and occasional keytar whiz) Matt Katz-Bohen and longtime bassist Leigh Foxx ably filling the shoes of past members Gary Valentine, Jimmy Destri, Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison – seemed to be the real crowd-pleaser of the evening.  The normally reticent Harry, now 74 years old but looking as youthful as the one-time Max’s Kansas City waitress, bounded onstage with dark shades, a sparkly silver-spangled dress, leggings and sneakers, romping through the opening salvo of “One Way Or Another” and “Hanging on the Telephone,” both anchored by the indomitable beat of drummer Clem Burke, one of the great tub-thumpers in all of rock, a fan himself adorned with the same CBGBs T-shirt worn by many in the audience.

Of course with bands like Blondie, like the proverbial sharks in Woody Allen’s theory of dating, if you’re not moving forward, you’re dying, and the band did manage to dip into their most recent album, 2017’s Pollinator, making sure to plumb their disco dance-rock roots with “Fun,” helpfully juxtaposing it besides its logical predecessor, the Giorgio Moroder Golden Globe-nominated co-write “Call Me,” from the American Gigolo soundtrack accompanied on the three back-of-stage video screens with clips from their appearance on Glenn O’Brien’s “TV Party” back in the day in Noo Yawk City and even a keytar interlude.

“We’re starting early damnit,” moaned Debbie, the sun still setting in the balmy summer sky, but the energy picked up as darkness set in. 

The stage turned blood-red for “Rapture,” as a white-haired, white-bearded Chris Stein, now seated on a chair, provided a throbbing psychedelic lead, channeling both Clapton and Hendrix as his fingers slid up and down the frets.  Bringing rock history up to date from their influential pop-rap fusion, the band launched into a slowed-down sensual cover of “Old Town Road,” yet another unlikely fusion of hip-hop and country that led Harry to muse, “You see, you never know what’s going to happen … That one took us all by surprise.”

Other new songs provided the kind of momentum that keeps a band fresh. “Wipe Off My Sweat,” from 2011’s Panic of Girls, combined Kessler’s “Hotel California”-ish spaghetti western flamenco guitar with Clem’s timbale beat, as Debbie removed the shades and began to warm up to the task at hand, her now huskier voice still capable of melting hearts.  Kesller’s acid-soaked guitar on “Fade Away and Radiate” prompted the evening’s first standing ovation, while the reggae-inflected “The Tide Is High” had the crowd yelling back the “Oh, no—o-o” refrain to Harry’s “I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that” over a nod to Deee-Lite’s classic post-disco hit, “Groove is in the Heart,” followed shortly by their own unlikely Europop crossover, “Heart of Glass.” For the encore, Debbie leaned into the theme song from the James Bond flick “From Russia with Love,” backed by the presidential seal, with the bald eagle clutching dollars and golf clubs in the night’s only slyly political gesture.  Harry’s solo turn on “Don’t Touch Me (You’re Too Hot)” led into the “Born to Run” strains of “Dreaming,” as Debbie chanted, “We are free” and Stein laid out one more sitting guitar solo.
Elvis Costello
Michel Couvrette
– Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello takes part in Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen at Belle Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Nov. 6.
After a brief intermission, Elvis Costello and the Imposters – featuring Attractions keyboard whiz Steve Naïve and rock-solid drummer Pete Thomas, with longtime bassist Davey Faragher and lissome vocalists Alisha “Kitten” Kuroi and Briana Lee – took the stage with a solid one-two-three punch of “Pump It Up,” a Latinized “Clubland” and “Accidents Will Happen,” the latter accompanied on the video screens with images of the Armed Forces album.

Looking like Hank Williams in his jaunty white fedora, Elvis was in a garrulous mood, often accompanying the songs with back stories, though his patter eventually forced him to stop the show at its 11 p.m. curfew, curtailing an encore, as Costello admitted the band was being kicked off the stage. 

The one-time enfant terrible is now a wizened vet, crooning his way through the Burt Bacharach collaboration, “Photographs Can Lie,” which began with a snippet of “The Look of Love,” with Costello hitting the high note with ease. A samba beat and Elvis’ grinding, wah-wah funk guitar characterized one of the deeper cuts, “Episode of Blonde,” from 2002’s When I Was Cruel, while fiery vocalists Kitten and Briana wailed on “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea.” Costello’s take on “Unwanted Number,” from his most recent album, last year’s critically acclaimed comeback, Look Now led into a meditation on number songs, from Harry Nilsson’s “One” to “19th Nervous Breakdown,” When I’m 64,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “99 and ½ Won’t Do,” before acknowledging Pete Thomas’ 65th birthday in three days. 

Bathed in ominous red and green spotlights, Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” driven by Pete Thomas’ clip-clopping beat, while Steve Nieve’s cascading, tinkling ivories helped fuel “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter,” another new song from Look Now.  For the latter part of the show, Costello was flanked by both singers, racing through the Stax-like Sam & Dave R&B of “I Can’t Stand Up,” “High Fidelity” and the soulful “Everyday I Write the Book,” interpolated with a nod to “Mr. Big Shot” before a rousing “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace Love and Understand)” (the screens insisting, “Thou Shalt Not KKKill”) completed the aborted set without performing set standards like “Alison” or “Radio, Radio,” but as the sated crowd filed out, no one seemed to mind.  The post-punk New Wave has aged into classic rock, not necessarily gracefully, but without losing any of its vitality.
Blondie Set List
One Way Or Another
Waiting on the Telephone
Call Me
Sunday Girl
Too Much
Old Town Road (Lil Nas X cover)
Wipe Off My Sweat
Fade Away and Radiate
The Tide Is High
Orchid Club
Heart of Glass
From Russia With Love (Matt Monro cover)
You’re Too Hot
Elvis Costello and the Imposters set list
Pump It Up
Accidents Will Happen
Green Shirt
Photographs Can Lie
Episode of Blonde
(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
Unwanted Number
Beyond Belief
Watching the Detectives
A Face in the Crowd (from musical based on the Budd Schulberg movie)
Monkey to Man
This Year’s Girl
Burnt Sugar is So Bitter
I Can’t Stand Up
High Fidelity
Everyday I Write the Book
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding