Elvis Costello and The Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl

On his second night at the esteemed venue, Costello again cleverly opened his set with the lyrics “Oh I just don’t know where to begin.” Although he was a bit wobbly with that song (“Accidents Will Happen”) and the follow up, he soon hit his stride. He introduced the second song (“Veronica”) as being co-written by a chap who played the same venue in 1964. The received wisdom was that Costello played acerbic Lennon to McCartney’s sweetness during their period of collaboration, but “Veronica” strikes the right melancholia about Costello’s grandmother losing her memory.

Costello was dapperly attired in a black suit, with a vibrant red fedora. Undoubtedly, the angels wanted to wear not the shoes but the chapeau.

As one of the original angry young men leaping out of the late 1970s punk / new wave explosion, Costello broadened his bailiwick over the ensuing decades to cover a wide range of styles. Often dismissed as a mere dilettante, he nonetheless forged ahead with album releases across a range of labels and genres. Although the former computer programmer is best known and most accomplished within the classic guitar / bass / keyboard / drum rock quartet, he has shown marked renown in the classical, jazz and country milieus. Based on his Hollywood Bowl performances, Costello probably wishes he could attain broad appeal as a big band crooner.

That is not likely, despite his prodigious acumen writing arrangements. Costello’s voice while evocative carries none of the necessary mellifluousness prevalent from purveyors ranging from Tony Bennett to Michael Bublé.

Elvis Costello - no longer a busker (photo by Andy Gotts)

Elvis Costello – he instead wore red on his head at the Hollywood Bowl (photo by Andy Gotts)

After the evening’s third song, Costello acknowledged his bassist and drummer (borrowed from the band led by his wife Diana Krall) after assaying her song “The Girl in the Other Room.” He re-introduced the rhythm section several other times during the evening, perhaps more out of nervous energy.

“Wise Up Ghost” (the title track from his album with the Roots released almost exactly a year ago) was the evening’s highlight. The original collaboration with Questlove was intriguing and seemed to stoke the both their fancy.

The orchestral arrangements Costello built for the LA Philharmonic were ambitious and largely attractive when presented at the Bowl. “Watching the Detectives” was returned to its source material, with a lush and edgy film noir tone. Presented right at home in Hollywood, the song was the evening’s second highlight.

In rounding the club house turn toward the end of the evening, Costello mentioned all the venues he had played in Los Angeles, the closest and smallest of which was just down the street, Hollywood High School. He achieved the honorable in the 70s when he released a limited edition single to accompany the first release of Armed Forces, with tracks recorded at the school.

The penultimate song of the evening was “God Give Me Strength,” which Costello noted was being performed simultaneously across town by its co-writer Burt Bacharach.

With the Orchestra sitting idly, Costello’s encore was a solo acoustic version of “Alison.” When the song was covered by Linda Ronstadt in the late 1970s, Costello was initially dismissive of her version. (Indeed, he sent his royalties therefrom to the African National Congress after she played Sun City).

At the Hollywood Bowl, however, Costello was heartfelt in dedicating the song to her. Without the royalties her version generated, Costello admitted he would not have been able to keep his Attractions on the road during those lean years.

I would have loved to hear a rendition of “Radio Radio” at the Bowl. I took up the suggestion of my buddy Don to use a lyric from the song for the name of my weekly college radio show back in the day: Voice of Reason.

Whether you consider Costello a genius for exploring myriad musical genres or a carpetbagger trawling across the landscape, taking liberties from town to town, there is no question he tries hard. Based on his effort with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, I would come down on the side of (here it comes, wait for it…) his aim is true.


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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