During a 1981 interview on the Tomorrow show, Elvis Costello explained to host Tom Snyder that he had been naive about the entertainment business early in his career. Costello thought he could charm record-company executives with the attitude, "Have I got a song for you!"
That same old-fashioned view marked Costello's sold-out five-night stand at the Broadway Theater in New York last week. Playing the master showman, Costello used jokes, props, guests stars, two different bands, and his immense talent to provide the audiences with pure entertainment.
He played a wide range of material, including originals from most of his 12 albums, several rhythm-and-blues covers, even traditional bluegrass, folk, and country songs. Costello, apparently pleased at the setting of the concerts, managed to work in a verse or two of "On Broadway" each night.
The series highlight was Wednesday night's show, when he appeared solo for one set and was then backed by the group with which he recorded last year's King of America album, the Confederates.
Costello walked on stage twirling an umbrella with the globe printed on it. "Welcome to the world of travel," he told the audience, and proceeded to tear into an acoustic version of his latest single, "Tokyo Storm Warning." He stopped several times during the song — a flurry of international images about a world gone haywire — to explain lyrics.
A reference to "fish and chips" was his outrage toward a law in England that prohibits the traditional food from being wrapped in newsprint because of health concerns. Instead, it is now covered in an imitation wrap that looks like real newsprint. "They call that progress," he said. The crowd laughed hysterically.
His loveliest crooning during the solo set came on his cover of the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink" and his hit "The Only Flame in Town." Another rare moment occurred when he had the audience sing "Twist and Shout" without instrumental accompaniment.
The Confederates, who include former members of Elvis Presley's band, were also no disappointment. Their steady backing made the perfect setting for ballads like "Poisoned Rose" and "American Without Tears." The encores at Wednesday's show and Thursday's, when Costello was also supported by the Confederates were highlighted by the Animals' 1960's song, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
The shows on Tuesday and Friday — when Costello was backed by his longtime band, The Attractions — were not as satisfying. Sound problems plagued the opening concert Tuesday, and both nights the group seemed less than inspired.
Still, Costello worked past those obstacles, particularly during Friday's "Spinning Songbook" show. Audience members were invited by guest hosts Buster Poindexter, and Penn and Teller, to spin a giant wheel labeled with about 40 songs, and the band played whatever song ended up at the top of the wheel. Like each of his succeeding albums, Costello's live shows continue to surprise and delight.