Elvis Costello + the Imposters at Riot Fest | Photos and live music review
Riot Fest 2012 has a weird, vintage-circus aesthetic: all of Humboldt Park was converted into some kind of half-carnival, with maybe fifteen people riding the Ferris wheel all weekend. Banners flanked the stages with hip sepia images and faded circus reds. The whole thing didn't seem to make a lot sense, but when Elvis Costello busted out a megaphone siren for “Watching the Detectives,” the festival’s shaky aesthetic was suddenly validated over eight bars of reggae. Costello, always more entertainer than artist, played to a massive crowd of mostly middle-aged couples on Sunday evening. There were some youngsters catching the man's dubby grooves, but I wouldn't be surprised if Fat Mike drove off the teens by defaming Elvis Costello as "the most overrated band of all time” during NOFX’s set. The irony is pretty rich there, not just because the singer from NOFX had the audacity to call someone else overrated, but even more so because Costello helped pave the way for Mike and most of this weekend's artists to be commercially successful. Ignorant? You betcha. But again, we're talking about NOFX here.
And I know, Costello isn't exactly the punkest of all time. He can't hold a candle to Iggy, or most of this festival’s performers in that respect. But (last time mentioning them, I'm sorry), NOFX probably wouldn't have written “Eat the Meek” into their all-hits setlist today if Elvis hadn't found success with “Detectives” and “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea.” Costello belongs on this weekend’s bill because he wrote great, accessible pop tunes with a punk edge, and not the other way around. Costello's set was heavy on uptempo hits, frontloaded with “Lipstick Vogue” and “Radio Radio” to draw the crowd in. I was glad to have left Jesus and Mary Chain early, as the drums to “Lipstick” started immediately after the Chain left Riot Stage—but latecomers still got to hear plenty of great songs. The set retained a high level of energy throughout, despite a bit too much wankery from Elvis when solo time rolled around. The set was rich with solos, and if his band wasn’t so damn incredible, it might have been a serious problem.
Still, Elvis got the crowd going, noodling around on his custom “Elvis Costello”-inscribed guitar neck to unconditional applause on several occasions. Parts of the show felt like a Dave Matthews Band concert, with fans too obsessively dedicated to differentiate between sonic brilliance and things that just happen onstage. I think what turns a lot of people off from Costello, myself included, is a near-complete lack of insight in his lyrics, an almost endless litany of supposedly witty nonsense layered via nasal garbling over otherwise excellent pop music. With that in mind, Costello’s fading voice wasn’t so much of a bummer for this reviewer. Noodling aside, we got a pro performance from one of rock’s hardest-working veterans Sunday evening, and you can’t overrate that.