When a songwriter like Elvis Costello takes as many risks, twists, and turns as he does — collaborating with Allen Toussaint and Tony Bennett; writing for Johnny Cash and teaming with Paul McCartney — there's only one thing left to do: Expect the unexpected.
And then leave it to Costello to brainstorm something else entirely. Like recording with classical musos the Brodsky Quartet, for instance. Or, when the mood strikes him, heading to Nashville to make a country-rock record with Leon Russell and Buddy Miller, as he did on last year's "National Ransom."
After nearly 35 years and nearly as many albums — not to mention more greatest hits collections than the sum total of records most bands muster — it's tough to be taken totally unawares by this onetime punk instigator-turned-pop institution's modus operandi.
And yet Friday evening, when Costello brought his band the Imposters, and a carnival-sized wheel of glowing bulbs and game-show gaudiness dubbed "The Spectacular Spinning Songbook" to the Wang Theatre for a night of semi-random reverie, there were surprises.
Let's get the on-stage marriage proposal — by a nice guy named Mike who dropped to one knee to ask his girlfriend Hilary (is that one "L" or two, Hillary?) for her hand in front of Elvis and about 2,800 people as witnesses — out of the way first (she said yes). An exultant rendition of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" marked the moment as the happy couple danced in a go-go cage.
Then there was Costello's devout duet on "American Without Tears" with his brother Ronan MacManus's fiddle and accordion-accented band, the Biblecode Sundays, plus a walk-on appearance by Peter Wolf. The veteran J. Geils Band frontman joined his old pal for a blues-soaked reading of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me" and the Geils Band's own gospel-tinged "Cry One More Time."
The best surprise of all, though, was Costello himself. He appeared to have recovered from a bout of bronchitis that caused him to cancel, earlier in the week, a New Jersey installment of this "Revolver Tour," during which he's inviting audience members on stage to spin that garish wheel of fortune containing roughly 40 songs (with a few thematically linked "jackpot" titles thrown in).
With his trio of Imposters, Costello managed to cram nearly two dozen favorites (an ageless "Alison"; the dub reggae-tinged "Watching the Detectives"; the blunted boil of "Pump It Up") into a free-wheeling, two hour-plus set spiked with Barnum & Bailey-style banter.
Costello was in fine spitfire voice and convivial form, reeling off a clutch of classics in quick succession — "I Hope You're Happy Now"; "Heart of the City"; "Mystery Dance" among them — before donning a top hat, assuming his ringmaster alias, "Napoleon Dynamite," and announcing what was in store: "Songs about love, about death, about dancing — though not necessarily in that order." Ah, the element of surprise, yet again.