The circus came to Hard Rock Live last night… in the form of an Elvis Costello concert.
Donning a top hat and cane, the British New Wave troubadour acted as carnival barker, MC and overseer of an elaborate set design whose centerpiece was the 150-foot Spectacular Spinning Songbook. The giant, motley wheel featured a rainbow of 30 Costello hits, rarities and covers, which a few select fans had the opportunity to spin onstage, thus dictating the next song (or few songs, in some cases) that Costello would perform.
There was also a "Hammer of Song" setup, a takeoff on strength competitions, in which participants would swing a mallet to move a ball, which would sound a bell, which would then let them select any song they wanted from the Songbook. Off on the other side of the stage, a go-go dancer gyrated inside a brightly lit pod, complete with a dancer's pole, and Songbook-spinning fans sat at a nearby, makeshift "bar" with a TV broadcasting static.
Costello is a fine showman, and there was always something to look at last night (even though, disappointingly, the big screens had been removed from their normal positions to the right and left of the stage). His interactions with the pre-selected wheel-spinners were witty and engaging. As a live performer, however, Costello started off on shakier ground — the opening number, "Pump it Up," was kind of a mess, starting off-key and coming off more like a sound check than the finished product. In fact, the four songs Costello played before introducing the Songbook came off rushed, like he was trying to speed through them on a deadline.
The show picked up greatly with the infectious "Chelsea," the first Songbook selection, then it began to drag with "I Want You," an already overlong track that Costello lengthened into a slow, druggy, echoey number. Then the show picked up again with a surprise "bonus" from the Songbook: four Costello titles with numbers in them, played in succession, followed by a string of hits, some from the Songbook, some played just because Costello wanted to.
In fact, it was surprising how little of the set list was culled from the wheel spins, despite the novelty of the concept. More than once, Costello interrupted the spins so that the arrow would point to the song he wanted to play, understanding that nobody wants to hear a rarity or a B-side as the evening wound down.
It's probably that case that few fans left the building last night complaining about the song selection. The set with loaded with crowd-pleasers — even casual Costello admirers would have recognized the majority of the tunes. But there was something unexciting about the whole experience, and I'm not sure if I felt detached from the action in my upper-tier seats or if the show really lacked luster (Again, the lack of big-screen projection was a problem for me). But I'm sure I was not alone in this reaction. The crowd did stand up occasionally, but it was more of a polite golf-clap audience than a rousing collective of fans. Dancing was at a minimum. After the concert, fireworks shot above Paradise Live as pockets of sailors watched on for Fleet Week. I was hoping for a few more metaphorical fireworks from the circus inside.