It can be taken for granted that Elvis Costello, the most penetrating singer-songwriter to arise out of the late-'70s English new wave, will deliver an illuminating set. Exactly what he will deliver remains a mystery. but if nothing else we are learning that experiencing Costello in concert means something different each time around. Last night at the Orpheum, Costello played his most bizarre Boston concert to date, mixing cheesy English music hall showmanship with his literate, driving rock 'n' roll and tossing all sorts of sparks into the air.
The prolific Costello has never lacked for ambition; he used to lack for warmth. Longtime fans recall his first Orpheum date in 1978 when he played a short, stunning set and blasted the hangers-on demanding an encore with waves of feedback. Folks who caught either of his 1984 shows — solo acoustic at the Orpheum or with the Attractions at Worcester Centrum will recall an artist who was generous of spirit and song, with wry humor poking around the edges of some serious music.
Last night, during the first of three consecutive soldout shows at the Orpheum, the audience was treated to yet another odd chapter in Costello's quirky, compelling book. (Each show, by the way, will be different — tonight's features the Confederates, from Costello's King of America LP, and tomorrow's his longtime backing band the Attractions.) Last night's was a long show (two-and-a-half hours and an hour late in starting) and it was a show of surprises — and kitsch. It was not, as advertised, a solo gig — though Costello performed a superb solo section. The Attractions backed Costello for the segments bracketing the acoustic set, and those portions were largely determined by a device Costello calls the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook."
This was a giant wheel, broken up into 38 slices, with the sections representing songs spanning Costello's career. Costello, who divided his time between the roles of Napolean Dynamite (cheeky game show host) and Elvis Costello (singer-guitarist-entertainer), had his man Xavier Valentine, or guest stars Aimee Mann and Jules Shear, select someone from the audience and have him or her spin the wheel. At one point, this included the Celtics' Bill Walton.
At any rate, an audience member would come up on stage, spin the wheel and Costello and company would play whatever came up. This spontaneity resulted in delights such as "The Beat," "Big Tears" "Less Than Zero," "High Fidelity." "Lip Service" and scads more. If you are getting the idea that this was a free-wheeling, carnival-like atmosphere, you're catching the drift.
All this humor and showmanship shtick, of course, is a far cry from the bitter Costello of old, and shows a side of him that's comparable to Neil Young. That is, Costello demands the right to rearrange, reinterpret and have new fun with old and new material. All but the opening, the encore and the acoustic mid-section (the evening's most somber, poignant excursion, highlighted by "Little Palaces" and "American Without Tears" from King of America) were based upon the wheel of fortune. This worked as the Great Equalizer, giving balance to greatest hits and obscure bits alike and allowing his early frantic songs to co-exist with later calmer ones. Yet, somewhat naggingly, the songbook served as a trivializer, too. The between-song banter, amusing at the outset, became tiring. And the emotions within songs sometimes seemed less concerned with the content — ie: the ennui of "Less Than Zero" — and more with the giddy spirit of the show itself. Rock 'n' roll momentum was broken by the game show glitz. Still, even if it wasn't as deep a delight as Costello is capable of, the novel endeavor was an enjoyable one-off, and, chances are the resonance and weight comes tonight and tomorrow.