Every American city has its rock 'n' roll "coulda been a contenders" — musicians whose shot at the big time came up short. From Cincinnati, one such act was Danny Adler, a guitarist schooled in the late-1960s funk coming out of hometown King Records, who showed up in early-1970s London with a pub-rock band called Roogalator.
The band had its ups and downs, but was part of the same scene as Dr. Feelgood, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Ian Dury's Kilburn and the High Roads and Robin Scott (producer/singer on M's "Pop Muzik.") Scott also produced Roogalator's debut single, one of Stiff Records' earliest releases, called "Cincinnati Fatback."
Adler gave it a long solid try, but eventually returned to the States. It is said that Adler tells people that Elvis Costello, when he was starting out as a young punk in 1977, borrowed his angry-Buddy-Holly look (big glasses, Fender guitar pointed like a gun) from Adler's stage presence.
So here on May 16th was Costello, playing Cincinnati's old Taft Theatre as part of his Revolver tour featuring the Spectacular Spinning Songbook — he has a gigantic, garishly colored game-show-like wheel on stage listing songs he and the Imposters are game to play. Fans are brought up from the audience to take a spin, and a genial Costello complies with the results. He did this once before, in 1986, and it has become the stuff of show-biz legend. It's a long way from 1977 for Costello, now nattily dressed in dark clothing and various hats.
The advance word is that the band had rehearsed some 150 songs for this tour — maybe 10% of what Elvis has recorded and probably less that 1% of what he knows. Still, "Cincinnati Fatback?" After all these years?
But during the show — which was scorchingly sensational, by the way — Costello did have a few chances to play what he calls "impromptu" numbers that deviate from the format. And one was "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea." In the middle, he threw in a few funky riffs from... could it be?
His setlist, posted the next day online, confirmed that it was indeed "Cincinnati Fatback." So maybe that story is true, and Costello owes Adler a huge debt, partly paid back. One hopes Adler was there to hear it.
Anyone who was there saw Costello at his best. He was a friendly, amusing and even endearing showman, offering a smile and tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole "Spinning Songbook" thing. When his glittery Vanna White-like assistant — identified for this tour stop as Her Royal Highness Jacinta Trimble, the Duchess of Lexington — brought eager contestants on stage, he greeted them with appreciative banter and then led them to the big wheel. After their choices were made, they had the choice of dancing in the Hostage to Fortune Go-Go Cage or relaxing at an on-stage bar, sipping what appeared to be martinis just a few feet away from Costello as he performed their songs. (Most people chose the latter.)
He allowed some of the younger and more excited women to hug and kiss him, or snap photos. When one woman told him how desperately she wanted to hear "Alison," he took the wheel himself and made sure it stopped on the song. (When was it that David Lee Roth said rock critics like Costello because he looks like them? Costello has matured into a sex symbol as well as a genuine rock hero. What exactly is Roth doing these days?)
For all of this wry agreeableness, Costello was transformed the second he started to play. Total commitment, total focus, total energy. The sound was loud yet the vocals had precision and clarity. He began the show with a frenetic, powerful mini-set — "I Hope You're Happy Now," Nick Lowe's "Heart of the City," "Mystery Dance" and "Radio, Radio."
It became clear during the show that one reason Costello's songs — explosive rockers as well as tender, longing ballads — have held up so well is that he never let them become shells for fatuous lead-guitar soloing. That's one thing he learned from punk. He plays primarily rhythm guitar, allowing for a few spotlight runs, but lets his fabulous keyboardist (and theremin player) Steve Nieve provide all the coloration on piano and Hammond B-3 organ. Meanwhile Pete Thomas controls the drumming like a captain steering a ship through a storm — you don't want to mess with him while he determinedly, heroically plays. (Davey Faragher provides bass.)
This approach worked wonders during audience-selected songs like "Doll Revolution," "Girls Talk," "Everyday I Write the Book," "Clowntime Is Over," "New Lace Sleeves" and "Long Honeymoon." At one point, he sang while walking through the audience, even venturing up into the balcony to choose a contestant for the next spin.
The secret of this tour's success is that the format doesn't control Costello. He toys with it, abandoning it when he thinks a planned set list or impromptu selection will work better and keep the excitement level high. He also allows for some open-ended titles on the wheel, like "Girls" or "Time," so he can play what he wants. Costello inserted tributes to his British Invasion favorites into the show — the Beatles ("Girl"), Stones (an extended "Out of Time") and Who ("Substitute"). (A fan sitting next to me was disappointed there was no Kinks cover; hopefully Costello can work on that.)
And the level stayed very high through three multi-song encores that finally ended, with an ecstatic crowd exhausted, after a thrilling and impassioned version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding)."
Hard to believe that when that song, a Lowe composition, appeared on Costello's 1979 Armed Forces, people wondered why the sneering punk they thought Costello was had recorded a tune with "hippie" sentiment. Was he being ironic? But it's become his signature song, always timely, and sums up his deep commitment to music as redemption. No matter how you spin that wheel, Costello comes up a winner.