“I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that,” sang Debbie Harry, repeatedly — as is the custom in “The Tide is High” — before, in concert, also repeatedly, she cajolingly demanded to know, “Are you?”
Well, no, Debbie, we are not that kind of girl at all, answered the responsive cheers of the full house, eager to be part of the resilience as well as the resistance Monday night at the Greek Theatre. The joys of survivor-ship were a big part of what was being celebrated in the co-headlining bill of last millennium’s models, Blondie and Elvis Costello & the Imposters, closing in on the end of a short joint tour and sounding not much worse for the 40-years-on-from-1979 wear. “Rapture” doesn’t date, as it turns out, and neither does actual rapture.
The bill was a de facto tribute to powerhouse drummers, with mutual Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers holding down the beat. Still powering Blondie, Clem Burke played from behind plexiglas, and from the enthusiasm he mustered for the duty, it almost seemed as if the barrier might be for our protection, not his audio segregation. Pete Thomas, the Attraction-turned-Imposter, was three days away from his 65th birthday, Costello pointed out, and puts a punishing spin on that marker.
Costello used the performance of a recent song, “Unwanted Number,” as an excuse to riff at length, mid-song, on rock ‘n’ roll arithmetic, finally sticking the landing with some wry commentary on age. “One is the loneliest number! It takes two!” he shouted. “… Nineteenth nervous breakdown!… Twenty-four hours from Tulsa! 36-22-36! … Fifty ways to leave your lover! Highway 61! When I’m 64! Of course once you get above those numbers, there are not so many good songs,” he cracked. “I’ve still got a few good weeks left,” added Costello, who will join Thomas in being 65 toward the end of August.
There is, of course, quitting in baseball, and also in new wave, and so it’s to both acts’ credit that they have not just ridden the tide of which Blondie spoke but resisted becoming nostalgia acts — even though, to be sure, it was the 1977-83 time frame being most celebrated by both bands in their setlist. Costello has kept his artistic vitalization alive longer than almost anyone else in rock, with the possible exceptions of Dylan and Springsteen, and proved it with three songs from last year’s highly regarded “Look Now” album plus one from a stage musical set to be produced next year.
Blondie’s latter-day output has not been as consistent, but the group did have a couple of comparatively recent songs (“Fun” and “Wipe Off the Sweat”) to add to the set. More than that, maybe, it’s their refusal from the start to be caught in a new-wave lockbox that keeps the group seeming eternally young. Harry referred to the flack that the band got when they put out a rap song, “Rapture” — and then seemed to almost be trolling for more of it by playing a condensed version of “Old Town Road.” “How did we get this song? I don’t even know,” said Harry. “Mr. Chris Stein, you did it,” she added, passing the blame or credit for the timely Lil Nas X cover they’ve been doing every night on the tour. If these two weren’t snobs before, they’re not about to start in their late 60s and 70s.
Speaking of Chris Stein, it was a pleasure to see him back on stage with Blondie after he took a break from a previous tour. He has passed over most of the more flamboyant guitar duties to Tommy Kessler, who joined the touring unit in 2010, and who does things like play solos behind his head or shred with just his left hand, crowd-pleasing touches that might have embarrassed the Blondie of the CBGB’s era but just seem like good fun four-tenths of a century later. But just when you thought Stein was going to remain a recessive presence on his stool toward the rear of the stage, he’d burst forth with the solos that you sensed he actually took an interest in doing — like the one at the end of “Rapture.” (Per the lyrics, that solo is actually supposed to be monstrous, so Stein can hardly give that one up to the relative novice.)
Harry herself remains a fashion plate, with a spectacularly spangly dress, and also dishes up surprisingly robust versions of the most familiar songs, taking nothing for granted or particularly easy at this late date. If anything she’s gotten less chill as the decades meter has turned over; an encore of “You’re Too Hot” found her willing to work her punkier roots for all the heat they were worth. That came right after a cover of “From Russia With Love” that had her playing Bond girl, at the president’s expense (although the overhead image of a presidential seal was the only indicator it was intended as political commentary).
This is not one of those co-headlining tours where the acts switch places, as Costello’s firewalking is a pretty hard act to follow, even for iconic Blondie, and so he followed with a blazing set that lasted an hour and 40 minutes — in other words, a really short one, by his standards. He threw in enough unusual picks that it was only as the 11:00 curfew approached that he seemed to realize he’d run out of time to sing “Alison,” for one of the few times in his mercurial but still crowd-pleasing career. That wouldn’t have been a shame if he hadn’t revitalized the song on the past couple of tours with the recent addition of backup singers Brianna Lee and Kitten Kuroi — but there was plenty else for them to do as a vocal trio over those 100 minutes, up to and including a climactic “Peace, Love and Understanding” that did take the union slightly overtime.
Kuroi and Lee were first seen in these parts two years ago on a summer 2017 tour commemorating “Imperial Bedroom” that also passed through the Greek. They were brought aboard because that album demanded some kind of additional vocalizing to fit the more ornate album being celebrated, even though Costello had resisted backing vocals on all but a few occasions in his career. But it worked out so well that he not only kept them on for subsequent tours, as seemingly permanent additions to the Imposters, but has them singing on every song of the set. On a very few occasions, like “Accidents Will Happen,” the choruses don’t gain much from their presence. But mostly the backing singers’ addition is an incalculably huge augmentation. It adds some all-important female energy on stage (something Costello had a bit of when he brought go-go dancers along on the Spinning Songbook tour, which you can’t really revive indefinitely without some quizzical looks), but mostly it just brings out more of the latent warmth in a catalog that has historically tended toward the cynical side. “This Year’s Girl” with a tender heart — who’d’a thunk it 40 years ago?
Costello’s good spirits included paying tribute to the recently late New Orleans great Dave Bartholomew — “Songwriters and producers, they outlive singers, usually. He lived to 100,” he noted, “so I’m going into the production business after tonight” — by reciting the lyrics to Bartholomew’s “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” followed by his hard-rocking answer song from the 2000s, “Monkey to Man.” (As an example of “answer songs,” Costello sang a snippet of Betty Wright’s “Cleanup Song,” then seemed genuinely startled that bassist Davey Faragher knew the tune and started playing along — “We never played that song, ever”.) Another rarely played highlight was the spoken-word-fueled “Episode of Blonde,” from the early 2000s, maybe being busted out in honor of the other act on the bill. He peppered the crowd with asides, like the one in which he imagined Elvis Presley living long enough into the ’80s to have covered Duran Duran’s “Rio”… and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”
And only by inference was there any political commentary. Perhaps even more subtly than Blondie’s presidential seal, there was Costello singing the title song from his hoped-to-be Broadway musical, “A Face in the Crowd,” based on the (some would say) Trump-prophesying novel and film of the same name. “It’s going to be hitting the stage next year,” he promised. “Are you all going to come see it? Well, I think we better get a bigger theater, then. This is the story of a no-good, double-talking, womanizing, hard-drinking, hillbilly son of a bitch. So you’ll be obviously not so disappointed to know that I won’t be taking the lead role in it because I’m too sweet and innocent.” He described a blowhard media personality turned politician, and “you know how this ends: He reaches down into the deep secret heart of the crowd and listens to the wicked things that they wish for and sings this here song.” We do know how that ends, and we like it better when Costello’s singing it.
Nostalgia was not so much on his mind, but he did express an enthusiasm for being back with “Debbie, Chris and Clem” who, along with him and the Attractions, “were a poster on somebody’s wall in Gilford in about 1978. That’s before all these other very good-looking people like Sting came along and pushed us out of the way.” Here’s to both acts not having been pushed very far.