Live at the El Mocambo
Rating:(Performance: 5.0/5.0, Reissue: 1.5/5.0)
Label: Hip-O Records/UMe
The Elvis Costello reissue machine continues to hum along relentlessly. After the Rykodisc reissues of 1993-1995 did a serviceable job in re-examining Costello’s back catalog, these were eventually bested by Rhino’s stunning series, which, to use the technical term, kicked major ass. With their classy packaging, carefully considered artwork and humorous, honest and revealing Costello-penned liner notes, this collection of outtakes, live cuts, alternate versions and failed experiments appeared to be the final word on all things Costello. Not so fast. Since then, the artist’s work has been repackaged several times over, in products ranging from interesting to entirely pointless. While another release of both My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model from Hip-O each included a second disc with a live show – in addition to a plethora of bland outtakes, forgettable demos and other travesties – they at least offered something not previously commercially available. Other efforts, such as a pricey box set of singles and another pressing of the musician’s studio albums, have been less forgivable, especially in an era where CD sales continue to plummet and music has been effectively reduced to little more than pieces of digital data.
Hip-O’s reissue of Live at the El Mocambo will likely do nothing to change the skeptical minds of fans who have long since dismissed such artifacts as little more than mercenary cash grabs. While the performance is amazing, this release offers nothing new and too often plays like just another thoughtless, recycled rehash from a label short on both new ideas and any real interest in giving fans something of merit. Though Hip-O is quick to point out that the concert was previously only available in limited quantities as a promo album and later as part of the 2 ½ Years box set, this recording is about as difficult to track down as a right-wing health care reform reactionary; the El Mocambo show is perhaps Costello and the Attractions’ most bootlegged concert. This latest repackaged dud shows the complete lack of imagination, creativity, and bang-for-your-buck that we’ve all, unfortunately, come to expect from music labels.
Enough has been written about the El Mocambo performance to render additional commentary redundant; suffice it to say that it’s a defining moment in the group’s history. At the least, this reissue confirms that the show’s reputation as among the foursome’s best is well-deserved. The tentativeness that crept into the group in late 1977 shows- check out the Nashville Rooms concert included in the MAIT deluxe edition for a band struggling to mesh- is long gone here, with Costello spitting out various barbed insults, insinuations and put-downs while Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas add musical venom to the mix. It’s simply the sound of four guys with a jaw-dropping set of songs and the right chemistry- of a few different kinds, I’d guess.
One of the charms about this tape has always been its roughness. Costello’s voice occasionally dominates the mix as the singer practically swallows the microphone in a rush to spit out various accusations and insults, most noticeably on “Mystery Dance,” “Welcome to the Working Week” and “Miracle Man,” while the Attractions’ instruments alternately complement each other and fight for supremacy. The crowd remains wired and idiotically vocal for most of the show, while Costello engages in the requisite but mostly mild audience baiting (though his tone becomes fairly malevolent right before the band deconstructs “Pump It Up” with the help of Martin Belmont). A common shortcoming of any live disc is that it lacks a visual element, but a definite sense of atmosphere is palpable here: the crowd’s amped-up disposition lasts for the show’s duration (the infamous “yeehaw” concertgoer who yelps throughout and who, perhaps appropriately, makes his presence most known during “Less Than Zero,” is still audible). While there is no appreciable difference in sound quality (maybe it’s a little louder) on this release versus that of either its 2 ½ Years or bootleg predecessors, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Yet a scintillating performance and decent packaging job (Look, kids! Pictures!) aren’t enough to justify the reissue’s complete lack of bonus material. There’s simply no incentive for fans who already own this record to purchase it again: four songs performed with Belmont and Nick Lowe are excluded, and there are no soundchecks, interviews, or, Christ, songs from the following night’s show at the same club to make the package more attractive. With the June 1978 Hollywood High concert – parts of which were already included in Rhino’s Armed Forces version – reportedly next up for release, Hip-O needs to move beyond simply repackaging previously released performances and start rewarding Costello’s fans for their patience and patronage, many of whom are likely developing nervous tics at that very mention of the word reissue. A wealth of vintage Costello and the Attractions shows circulate on bootleg, and if done right, this ongoing live concert campaign could provide plenty of treats for long-time fans as well as those who only know Costello as the twitchy weirdo from the Austin Powers movie.
And so the latest iteration of Live at the El Mocambo is simply another underwhelming and useless Costello reissue, of which it’s hard not to conclude that Hip-O either has no real clue what music fans look for in a reissue or isn’t particularly interested in finding out. Whether a listener has heard this show before or not isn’t the point: there is a way to accommodate both lifers and newbies and make both feel like a record label isn’t roughly shaking their pockets out like a goon squad street tough. While this 1978 performance belongs on any list of essential post-punk live shows, Hip-O’s uninspired release is ultimately a failed hatchet job. It’s about as attractive as sea amoeba – though it’s worth noting that, unlike this release, sea amoeba serves a purpose – and suggests listeners better have low expectations for future entries in “The Costello Show.”