Elvis Costello | photo by Ashley Gellman for WXPN
XPN Fest Recap: Elvis Costello and Blondie celebrate the past while looking to the future
When an artist has been making music for over four decades, there are a couple common routes they can take with they live shows. One: stick to the tried-and-true, deliver a crowd-pleasing hit-parade, dial down the surprises or spontaneity. Two: write immersive new records and focus only on them, jettison the career-making singles that they’re tired of playing and don’t feel connected to anymore anyway.
Or they could find a third option in between phoned-in and alienating. On Saturday, two elite members of the post-punk / new wave vanguard, Elvis Costello and Blondie, did just that, headlining night two of the XPoNential Music Festival with sets that played equally to the casual listeners and the die-hards.
Surrounded by stylized videos and pulsing lights, Debbie Harry made an entrance to “One Way Or Another,” bringing the crowd to their feet from the get-go. Their rendition of The Nerves’ “Hanging On The Telephone” — a song that, while a cover, is as much their own as anything else in their catalog — kept the energy incredibly high, but this wasn’t going to be some greatest hits highlight reel. Selections from 2017’s terrific Pollinator wove into the set, like the bright dancefloor jam “Too Much,” and a trip back to 1999 for No Exit‘s “Maria” was sublime.
“When we recorded this song, we were met with some resistance,” Harry said in her intro to the 1980 rap-disco hit “Rapture.” “But time does change, and we are happy to be a part of that.” Whether you look at that song as dubious cultural appropriation or a meaningful crossover that elevated hip-hop in the eyes of the 80s music mainstream, it remains a party rocker, and the crossover vibe continued with Blondie’s much-publicized cover of Lil Nas X’s country-rap hit “Old Town Road,” which was equal parts silly, fun, and somewhat poignant.
For the set’s second act, Blondie truly went deep, breaking out “Wipe Off My Sweat” from 2011’s Panic of Girls, the soaring slow-burner “Fade Away and Radiate” from 1978’s Parallel Lines, and the skittish nightlife bop “Orchid Club” from 1982’s The Hunter. They lapsed into an impromptu cover of Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” when Tommy Kessler’s guitar broke (probably too many of those incongruous Judas Priest licks). Though Harry is only joined by two of her bandmates from the early days — drummer Clem Burke, guitarist Chris Stein — it’s clear that Blondie as a whole still revels in performances, from the Trump subtweet “From Russia With Love” (backed in their encore by the White House seal on the projection screen) to the stratospheric joy of the set-closer “Dreaming.”
In similar fashion, Costello front-loaded his set with bangers — “Pump It Up” opening the show and, this being XPNFest, oddly evoking the opening to every Free at Noon concert, then launching directly into “Clubland” from 1981’s Trust, and a double-shot from from 1979’s Armed Forces with “Accidents Will Happen” into “Green Shirt.”
While Costello was one for coherent conversation moreso than Harry, there was still an odd mix of pomposity and cheesiness to his routine. Introducing the Burt Bacharach co-write “Photographs Can Lie” from last year’s record with his current band The Imposters, he told a long and ridiculous story about reclining backstage in a waterbed (“as I have at all my concerts”) when a phone rang, and it was Bacharach himself on the other end of the line, beseeching that he play the song tonight. Okay, then.
But the balance that the set began to strike at this point was its biggest strength — the esoteric Bacharach collab into one of his most beloved cuts of his punk era, “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.” The suave samba “Episode of Blonde” from 2002’s When I Was Cruel into the garage energy of “Beyond Belief” from the recently-revisited Imperial Bedroom, into the film-noir dub of the classic “Watching The Detectives.” It seemed like this set was equally aimed at the casuals, the fans, the hyper-fans, and Costello himself. Even if the title song to his forthcoming musical Face In The Crowd (“you’re gonna come see it, right?”) was a bit self-indulgent, it spotlighting Costello’s outstanding piano playing, and gave backup vocalists Kitten Kuori and Briana Lee room to shine.
In addition to the setlist variety, we’d be remiss not to give The Imposters themselves a shoutout. Keys player Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Davey Faragher are a lean, mean unit — Thomas’ drum kit is only a kick / snare / rack / floor setup, with a couple cymbals, and his bandmates operate on humble amps, only Nieve flirting with excess. It’s stripped down in a relative sense (look at all the stuff Blondie had onstage just before them, or Hozier the night before) and yet they did so much with it.
But the songs themselves were the centerpiece, and Costello’s have so many touch points, from the listeners in the cheap seats to the nerdy obsessives, the latter of whom got a huge treat with “This Is A Test,” the opening track on a 1993 solo album by Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James that Costello co-wrote. And from there, it was one for everybody, a roaring singalong to Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” — another cover that has become just as much the cover-er’s own — that sent the crowd humming into the night.
One Way Or Another
Hanging on the Telephone
Old Town Road
Wipe Off My Sweat
Fade Away and Radiate
The Tide Is High / Groove Is In The Heart
Heart of Glass
From Russia With Love
You’re Too Hot
Elvis Costello Setlist
Pump It Up
Accidents Will Happen
Photographs Can Lie
(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea
Episode of Blonde
Watching The Detectives
Face In The Crowd
Monkey To Man
This Year’s Girl
I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down
Every Day I Write The Book
This Is A Test
(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding