Review: Elvis Costello and The Imposters at Tanglewood with opener Nick Lowe

Elvis Costello and The Impostors played Tanglewood in the Berkshires. All performance photos by Hilary Scott.
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The one and only time I had seen Elvis Costello live before his debut performance at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed on July 1 was during his debut performance on Saturday Night Live in 1977. I was backstage during a rehearsal—my father worked at NBC—and, like most teenagers at that time, I was a huge fan of the show, so it was a big treat whenever my dad took me to the set. I can’t say I was a fan of Elvis Costello back then, but only because I hadn’t heard of him yet. I did note the funny name on the dressing room door, and the intense, scrawny singer/guitar player looking like the snarling spawn of Buddy Holly and a punk rocker. 

Costello’s appearance on SNL (then officially named NBC’s Saturday Night) generated much controversy and speculation when Costello (née Declan Patrick McManus) abruptly stopped his band, The Attractions, a few bars into “Less Than Zero” and ferociously tore into “Radio Radio.” According to popular legend, his record label objected to him playing this song because of its critique of capitalism and the commercialization of music, and producer Lorne Michaels was so angry that he gave Costello the finger throughout  the performance. Costello was banned from the show for more than a decade. By the time of his next SNL appearance, in 1989, he was an established international star. 

This all seems quaint in 2023, given that radio airplay barely matters for a contemporary musician’s career, and “Radio Radio” has become a ‘70s classic. And, as the adoring crowd at Tanglewood couldn’t help noticing, that angry young man who fronted The Attractions has now become mellow, congenial fellow, fronting The Imposters. After all, Costello is now 68 years old. No longer scrawny, his body has become a bit plumper, and his voice has become a bit thinner. With maturity, the snarl is gone, replaced by nostalgic wistfulness. 

Not that it mattered to those of a certain age—self included—who came to see a legend. The audience actually got two legends that evening. Opener Nick Lowe, a fellow Brit and master of the three-minute pop song, charmed the audience with an upbeat, zippy set including some of his greatest hits, starting with “So It Goes,” and ending with ”Cruel to Be Kind” and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll).” Backed by Los Straitjackets, a tight instrumental band of three guitarists and a drummer— all wearing Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) style masks and black clothing—Lowe stood out, with his thatch of white hair, beaming in thick, rose-colored glasses, plugged-in acoustic guitar, and an affable air. Throughout, the tempo seemed a bit slower than I remember these perfect pop songs, but they still had many in the crowd singing along. I was hoping to hear “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which Lowe released in 1974 and Costello covered and popularized in 1979, but Lowe did not, and I had already left by the umpteenth encore when Costello played it.  

After a brief intermission, the opening notes from the Dragnet theme song blared through the Shed, and Elvis Costello and The Imposters took the stage, dramatically lit in bright red, green, and blue, with occasional smoke plus high-drama spotlights that blinded the audience. Costello, sporting a black wool cap, mauve jeans, and dark wrap-around sunglasses, kicked it off with two crowd-pleasers from his 1977 album My Aim is True: “Mystery Dance” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.”

The band really put on a show, with a nearly three-hour set, keeping up the high energy, interspersing old and newer songs with stories. With four decades of songwriting under his belt, Costello has an immense catalog to draw from; indeed, as he recounted from the stage, in February he played the Gramercy Theatre in lower Manhattan for ten nights, performing 238 different songs, before noting with pride his long-term collaboration with Burt Bacharach. (In March, Costello released a boxed-set recording, The Songs of Bacharach & Costello, a bit more than a month after the great American hit-maker died this February.)

Costello’s nostalgic storytelling was a highlight of the evening. He recounted his life-changing experience in a record shop, where a wise, bearded man warned him off Pink Floyd and guided him to Bruce Springsteen—whom Costello thought was Dutch. He talked at length about how much Springsteen had inspired him with romantic images of the Tilt-A-Whirl down by the boardwalk while the only attraction at the English seaside was one sad donkey. In fact, he spoke so much about Springsteen that I half expected Bruce to make a special guest appearance. Throughout the evening you could hear the Springsteen influence in his music.

He also graciously introduced his band, The Imposters: keyboardist Steve Nieve, who has been with Costello since those early days; drummer Pete Thomas; and bassist Davey Faragher. Longtime Dylan electric guitarist Charlie Sexton was along for the ride, cutting a fine figure as a late-stage David Bowie look-alike and frequently joining Costello for some searing guitar-hero pyrotechnics. The band members all had an opportunity to take extended solos, and for one song Costello put down his guitar and displaced Nieve, taking his turn at tickling the ivories.

At one point, Costello joked that he could do songs about confectionery or songs about girls’ names in the titles; choosing the former, he launched into “Like Licorice on Your Tongue,” following it up with “So Like Candy.” That did not preclude him doing a song that famously features a woman’s name—Alison—and his performance was full of pathos.

Any concertgoers looking for a string of Costello’s early hits got what they came for. Costello pleased the crowd with “Accidents Will Happen,” “Every Day I Write the Book,” and yes, that once-controversial “Radio Radio,” played noticeably slower than on that fateful live performance on a Saturday night in New York. He also threw in the 1960s classic “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” leaning more into the Animals version than the original rendition by Nina Simone.  

Since I’ve gotten older too, I’ll admit that I was planning to leave as the band rocked out to “Blood and Hot Sauce” so that I could could avoid the infamous Tanglewood parking lot traffic. But then the band launched into a big-beat rendition of “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” another classic from 1977 with a startling new arrangement that brought the crowd to its feet and stopped me in my tracks. Friends who stayed for the duration told me that the band played multiple encores, but for me it was enough to end the evening on that high note, with an old favorite getting a powerful makeover such that it could have been written today.

Elvis Costello and The Imposters, with opening act Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets, played the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, on July 1.

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Photos are courtesy of Tanglewood.



    • Thank you for the corrections! I was sorry to leave early, it’s not my style, but my companion was tired and is always anxious about Tanglewood crowds, no matter the performance. My preference is always to stay until the end, and then some, until the crowds thin.

  1. Nice review. Just a note that Peace, Love and Understanding was played, three songs after Blood & Hot Sauce (followed by four songs, including Watching the Detectives and Lipstick Vogue). Traffic getting out after the Elvis show as nothing like the James Taylor shows, as a good deal of the crowd left before the show wrapped up around 10:45. No need to leave this one early.

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