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Your weekend arts forecast: Remembering Elvis Costello’s Tampa Bay debut

Bill DeYoung



Elvis Costello and the Impostors play the Mahaffey Sunday, Nov. 10. Photo: Big Hassle.

It might be beyond the imagination of today’s hipster pop music acolytes to think of Elvis Costello as anything other than a rather eccentric, grand old man of songcraft. He’s been around a long, long time and has written, played and sung in collaboration with the old guard (Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett, George Jones and Paul McCartney) and the new (the Roots, Fiona Apple, Jenny Lewis and Stephen Colbert).

He’s an OBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and a sometime actor who once hosted his own TV chat show. He even wrote a memoir.

Costello, who’ll perform Sunday night at the Mahaffey Theater, made his first area appearance May 14, 1978 at the Jai Alai Fronton in Tampa. He was 23 years old. His first album, My Aim is True, already had a loyal local following; the followup, This Year’s Model, was just a few weeks old and – true to the times – was getting zero airplay on local radio.

Although Costello’s loyal local fans all turned up, they amounted to just 900 people, in a 4,000-seat sports auditorium (a cold, boxy concrete building totally inappropriate for rock ‘n’ roll concerts, it was closed 20 years later and subsequently torn down, replaced by a Home Depot). The promoter lost a boatload of money.

After lifeless segments from an American band called Mink DeVille, and from an English quartet including Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds (they weren’t officially calling themselves Rockpile yet), Costello and the Attractions raged through a 14-song, 40-minute set.

Everyone who saw it (this writer included) was gobsmacked. Fast, loud, angry, punchy, yet articulate and tuneful, the songs were light years away from the thudding,  monosyllabic drone of punk music. That, of course, had its time and place – and its audience – but what Elvis Costello was doing, right out of the gate, was crisp, engaging and electrifying. THIS was rock ‘n’ roll energy.

“Less Than Zero.” “Pump it Up.” “Watching the Detectives.” “No Action.” “Lipstick Vogue.” “Red Shoes.” “Mystery Dance.” “Radio Radio.” “The Beat.” “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea.” It was a breathless performance, like a bullet train speeding through your little prairie town so fast you didn’t even see it.

It was like being hit over the head. In a good way. He was literate, he was funny, he barked, he snarled and he occasionally crooned. He was a great songwriter. He was unlike anything else on the airwaves, in the record store, in your musical dreams.

For a lot of us, it was Elvis Costello and not the Clash, not the Sex Pistols and not the Ramones, who washed the FM dinosaurs – the likes of Styx, Kansas, Rod Stewart and REO Speedwagon – down the drain.

Here’s how divisive the music world was becoming: At that year’s Grammy Awards, Costello was nominated as Best New Artist, but lost to … the disco duo A Taste of Honey, who’d had a hit (their only one, as it turned out) with a song called “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”

He persisted, and he only got better. As time slogged on, Costello shifted that primal rock ‘n’ roll attack to a crazy quilt of exquisitely written and performed pop, folk, jazz and even classical music. He remains the consummate songwriter and performer, even if his days as a provocateur are long behind him. You can’t really be an Angry Old Man.

Sunday’s concert features Costello and the Imposters, which includes original Attractions Pete Thomas (drums) and the keyboard wizard Steve Nieve.

My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy!, Trust and Imperial Bedroom – oh, let’s include the patchwork singles anthology Taking Liberties – that’s one of the most prolific and satisfying runs in singer/songwriter history. Still.

From Bob Ross’ St. Petersburg Times review of that 1978 show:

Costello addressed the small crowd only once: “Thanks for coming,” he mumbled. “Tell your friends about us, because when we come back I want to see this place full!”

He’s been back in the area many times over the decades – the venues are bigger and better and yes, they’re always full.

Tickets here.

Creative Clay Fest

Good things are happening Saturday outside and around Creative Clay, 1846 1st Avenue S. From 11 a.m. until 8 in the evening. It’s the annual Creative Clay Fest, designed to put the spotlight on this long-lived, community-based arts center for people with disabilities. On two stages, check out music from Rebekah Pulley and the Reluctant Prophets, Mountain Holler, Ella Jet & Future Soul, Chant the Trees and many others. Florida folk artist Mary Proctor, a longtime Creative Clay collaborator, will conduct two art workshops, and – perhaps best of all – there’ll be a marketplace with works for sale by dozens of local artists, including those who create inside the Creative Clay compound. Details are here.

Second Saturday ArtWalk

Let’s hope that cooler temperatures prevail for the November edition of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance’s Second Saturday ArtWalk, during which 40-some galleries and studios will be open-housing, with the gallerists (and in many cases, the artists themselves) looking forward to showing you what’s new, and how it got that way. If you’re new to the Second Saturday ArtWalk, a convenient trolley service – it’s free – loops throughout the city, touring said spots, from 5 to 9 p.m. Although you could certainly walk it – or at least some of it – if you were inclined. Here’s the trolley map.

A moment in history

It’s been 80 years and change since African American contralto Marian Anderson famously sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, having been denied the stage of Constitution Hall (by the Daughters of the American Revolution). The outdoor performance, arranged in part by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was attended by a mall crowd estimated at 75,000 and broadcast to millions over the radio. Considered a pivotal moment in civil rights history, Anderson’s appearance is being feted Sunday at the Palladium Theater at an event produced by, among others, Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum executive director Terri Lipsey Scott.

At 4:30 p.m., St. Pete vocalist Siobhan Monique Roland will sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” Anderson’s unforgettable opening number, on the steps of the Palladium.

Things then move inside for a concert, Classic Black: Celebrating Black Classical Performers, featuring (among others) violinist Mary Corbett, bass vocalist Gregory Sheppard, standup bass musician John Lamb, Jamal Sarikoki,, Carolyn Hobbs, Fred Johnson and Maiya Stevenson.

Additional details, and tickets, available here.

Weekend highlights

Shakespeare in the City, the ongoing collaboration between the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival and thestudio@620, continues this weekend with the opening performances of The Taming of the Shrew, a free theatrical experience, in Williams Park. Learn more about it here.

Dave Barry, R.L. Stine and Meg Cabot are the marquee names for the 27th annual Times Festival of Reading, Saturday on the University of South Florida St. Pete campus, but the all-day literary expo includes 50-some authors, reading, speaking and signing, including locals Jeff Klinkenberg, Lisa Unger, Roy Peter Clark and Ray Arsenault and – from Catalyst partner the St. Petersburg Press – Paul (Cigar City) Wilborn, George (Bad Habits) Fleming and, ahem, yours truly. Learn more here.

St. Pete’s professional theaters are both gearing up for new shows that will open later in the month, so the action this weekend is in Tampa – and you really, really should investigate the thrilling musical Ordinary Days at Stageworks, and the hilarious satire The Thanksgiving Play at Jobsite. Both companies continue to produce exemplary work.

Pasco County native Andra Douglas talks about her memoir, Black & Blue: Love, Sports and the Art of Empowerment, Friday at the Arts XChange. Douglas, who became a powerful force in the evolution of women’s professional football, is also an artist – and the event is also the official kickoff for an Arts XChange exhibit of her work. Details are here.

The Florida Orchestra and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay join forces this weekend for a trio of concerts conducted by composer Eric Whitacre, including his spectral Deep Field, set to a stunning visual: A 20-minute, NASA-provided video of images taken by the Hubble space telescope. Friday in the Catalyst, we’ll talk about this show – and Whitacre himself – in detail.

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1 Comment

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    Jen Davis

    November 10, 2019at10:37 am

    Killer text licks, on Elvis Costello. Bravo.

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