Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Elvis Costello 28: El Mocambo and Hollywood High

Shortly before the worldwide release of his second album, Elvis and his recently acquired Attractions performed a fast ‘n sweaty gig at the same Toronto club that had featured the Rolling Stones just a year before. Live At The El Mocambo was then released as a promo album, and promptly bootlegged.
It’s a great snapshot of the band on their second North American tour, plowing through songs familiar and unfamiliar to a rowdy club crowd. You can hear Elvis baiting the audience, demanding repeatedly that they “stand up”. The songs have been transformed from their guises on My Aim Is True into a sound all their own. “Less Than Zero” even gets a new set of lyrics to reflect the mistaken assumption that the Oswald in the song was the surname of Lee Harvey.
Some fifteen years later, it got its first official release, somewhat, as part of a box set on Rykodisc, alongside his first three albums. (Those buying the three individually could collect coupons from each and get their copy that way.) In a packaging decision sure to excite those of us who notice such things, the title was listed on the spine and the disc itself as Live At El Mocambo.
When Rhino got a hold of the catalog in 2000, the album was pointedly left out, with the exception of “Less Than Zero” being added to My Aim Is True, making the Ryko version a collector’s item.
Then, at the end of the decade, Hip-O’s version of the catalog initially eschewed any kind of bonus tracks on the albums, except for the Deluxe Editions of the first two albums. Two years after those landed with a resounding thud, the label initiated a series of standalone live albums under the banner “The Costello Show”. The first release? Live At The El Mocambo, complete with the missing article restored to the spine.

Much more interesting was the second installment in the series, which arrived a few months later. Live At Hollywood High presented the full concert that had previously been a bonus EP in the original Armed Forces package. Those three tracks were included on the Ryko reissue, expanded to nine songs on the Rhino version. In the absence of a Deluxe Edition of Armed Forces, for which this would have been a strong candidate, at least they found a way to let us hear the whole thing.
Starting with a piano-and-vocal performance of the recently written “Accidents Will Happen”, the band gallops into place for “Mystery Dance”. Only three months after the El Mocambo performance, there have already been changes to the set. Working versions of “Goon Squad” and “Party Girl” are already pretty tight, and a very non-country take of “Stranger In The House” adds some more variety. And of course, it’s nice to have an Attractions version of “Alison”. Overall, the performance is tighter—and probably more sober—than in Toronto, with Elvis interacting with a giddy high school crowd.
It’s a good show, but admittedly, overkill, as it makes a total of three concert releases covering the same three-month period. It remains to be seen if the “Costello Show” live series will continue.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Live At The El Mocambo (1978)—
Elvis Costello & The Attractions Live At Hollywood High (2010)—4


  1. Good shows, good albums, good review. Only one mistake I'd like to point out: if you take a look at the cover and read the title properly, you'll see that it is El Mocambo, not El Macombo as you typed it. Nothing important, except for those of us who notice such things...

    I'm seeing Costello in concert next July, here in Madrid. My sixth time -saw him in '91 with Keltner, Ribot, etc., in '93 with The Brodsky Quartet, in '96 with The Attractions, later on with The Att. again and last summer with Allen Toussaint- and I'm still excited: he's always new, and for me that's what live music is all about.

    Keep on writtin', Wardo, your blog is great,
    Nacho (Spain)

  2. Spelling duly noted and corrected. And to think I call myself a writer.

    Would you believe that I missed the Madrid show with the Brodskys in '93 by about a week?

  3. You are a writer, period.

    A pity you missed that beautiful show. I specially loved the encores, which included wonderful renditions of Jerome Kern's "They didn't believe me" and Tom Waits' "More than rain" and a breathtaking "Almost blue". By the way, do you know if such live material with the Brodskys has been ever released?


  4. You flatter me sir.

    The Rhino reissue of The Juliet Letters includes three of four songs originally issued on a promo EP recorded at New York's Town Hall: "More Than Rain", "God Only Knows" and "They Didn't Believe Me". (A version of "I Almost Had A Weakness" was left off the Rhino.) There are also three other songs recorded at Meltdown with the Brodskys, as well as other jazz/classical tracks that fit somewhat with the theme.

    The Rhino Juliet Letters is definitely worth picking up. My only criticism (outside of the songs being left off) is that his liner notes, revised in 2006, omit any reference to Cait O'Riordan, who had been such a strong presence in the original notes.

  5. You're right, I've forgotten it. I remember now I bought the Rhino reissue as a present for a friend and it had that extra disc with jazz/classical material, including the Brodskys.

    Omitting Cait on the liner notes is truly a shame: maybe Diana Krall was looking behind his back.


  6. Good stuff, though no mention of the all-too-frequent rebel yeller on the El Mocambo disc. He detracts a lot from this recording.