Elvis Costello Comes Alive

This week’s guest on SPECTACLE, Rufus Wainwright, is one of the most acclaimed songwriters of his generation. He is equally celebrated, however, for his power as a live performer; as he notes in the episode, he’s been on stage from a very young age, singing with his mother and aunt, the renowned folksingers the McGarrigle Sisters. Wainwright has performed in a wide range of settings, as a pure solo act and backed by an orchestra, culminating in his 2006 recreation of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, which was released as the Grammy-nominated album Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall.

Elvis Costello has also performed and toured in a remarkable variety of configurations during a career that has now entered in fourth decade. Shockingly, though, he has never released a true, stand-alone live album—perhaps because his material and arrangements change so rapidly from year to year and from tour to tour. He has issued live recordings of collaborations with such artists as jazz pianist Marian McPartland, guitarist Bill Frisell, and the Metropole Orkest, but never a straight-up rock & roll concert. (To be fair, the expanded reissues of most of Elvis’s catalogue include live tracks captured over the years, and the widely-bootlegged 1978 promotional album, Live at the El Mocambo, was legally issued in 1993, but only as a bonus to an anthology set.)

For almost twenty years, the faithful Attractions provided accompaniment for Elvis on stage as well as on vinyl—though he first “disbanded” the group as far back as 1984. At Live Aid in 1985, he was told that because of time constraints, he should “ditch the band,” and he sang “All You Need is Love” alone with an acoustic guitar. When he brought back the Attractions for part of the 1986 King of America album, the resulting tour reflected his uncertain allegiances—and produced some of his finest shows. Each city was a three-night stand: one show with the Attractions; one with the rootsier outfit known as the Confederates, featuring former Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton; and one night as a solo act.

The follow-up album, Blood and Chocolate, spawned a tour in which Elvis hosted the evening as the unctuous MC Napoleon Dynamite, giving a vaudeville-style feel to a show that included a roulette wheel, spun to select the evening’s set list. After a series of more experimental releases, Elvis hit the road in 1996 for a run of club dates, backed only by Steve Nieve’s piano. A tour with the Attractions followed, which would be their last as a unit. In 2002, when he went out after the release of the When I Was Cruel album, his support came from the Imposters (with Davey Faragher replacing Bruce Thomas on bass), which has been his touring band ever since—except when he plays solo, as he did when opening for Bob Dylan in 2007.

Of course, some of Elvis’s greatest on-stage moments were broadcast on television, including his legendary switch from “Less Than Zero” to “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live in 1977. And if you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the man perform, there’s this new show on the Sundance Channel you might want to check out…

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.