Call it the redemption of Elvis Costello. After all his various side excursions over the past couple of decades — from country to classical, as well as tentative attempts at jazz and equally awkward passes at MOR — Elvis has returned to the route he traversed early on.
Even after putting out albums at a prodigious rate — sometimes multiple releases in the span of mere months — his best work remains the product of his heady postpunk beginnings, when his material came across as vital, insurgent, and with an aim that was all the truer for it. Now reunited with two of the original members of his iconic combo the Attractions, which he's redubbed the Imposters — specifically, keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas (bassist Bruce Thomas has long since been replaced by Davey Faragher) — Costello seems determined to revisit the roots he planted some 35 years ago.
Unfortunately, while the intent is there, the presentation doesn't quite live up to that promise. The showbiz shtick that Elvis adopts early on — top hat, cane, the nom de plume Napoleon Dynamite, and even the gyrating go-go dancer situated stage right — seem so contrived that ultimately the effect dims whatever fire the band manages to muster.
The idea of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook — a giant wheel that members of the audience are invited to spin to allow some supposed spontaneity in the set's song selection — is in fact a misnomer, as most of the numbers appear predetermined. It's a fun idea to invite fans onstage, but for the most part they're there merely to embellish the cabaret concept. As for the wheel itself, it's mostly a flashy prop. Without it, promoters might have had to resort to billing the tour as a greatest-hits package, which clearly wouldn't offer the same pizzazz. Besides, Elvis isn't quite ready for the oldies circuit.
Distractions aside, Costello and company prove they're still capable of carrying the material with little muss and fuss. Elvis himself seems to have improved his dexterity as a guitarist over the past few years, although Steve Nieve is still the major ace in the hole as far as giving the songs their sheen. Thomas is equally adept, although at times, his drumming seemed rote and merely workmanlike in its execution. Faragher is an added plus not only in terms of anchoring the bottom end but also supplying the backup vocals that add extra dimension to the spit and sass that still informs Elvis' singing.
Overall, the material was well chosen — by the band, that is, not necessarily by the spin of the wheel — and for the most part, it effectively skimmed the surface of Costello's best early efforts. Songs like "Pump It Up," "Radio Radio," "Heart of the City," and "Mystery Dance" were delivered in rapid-fire succession early on, a reminder of the urgency and intensity that characterized his youthful flash and frenzy. Likewise, "What's So Funny ('Bout Peace Love and Understanding)," "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," and "Watching the Detectives" reinforced the fact that — wheel be damned — even the most casual fan could hear the hits.
There were a few lulls in the action to be sure — "I Want You" unmercifully dragged and slowed the show's momentum to a crawl. The one-two presentation of "Everyday I Write the Book" and "Allison" were surprisingly lackluster, shorn of the emotive impulses that sparked the original versions. (Tagging a cover of "Tears of a Clown" with the latter seemed an especially forced attempt to add extra punch.)
Surprisingly, the band's take on Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place to Go" (prefaced by an amusing anecdote in which Costello recalled a recent awards event that found him playing before Keith Richards and Berry himself, "two men that have come to blows over rock and roll...") and a version of "Shotgun" by Junior Walker and the All Stars grafted on to "Uncomplicated" proved especially effective during the encore. On the other hand, capping the concert with recurring verses of "Purple Rain" seemed like a tacky attempt to further titillate a crowd that was polite, sparse in spots, and relatively restrained. By contrast, Costello's cover of the Beatles' "Please Please Me" was one of the more impressive performances of the evening, a subtle reminder that when Paul McCartney tapped Costello as a writing partner and indicated he was a surrogate John Lennon, he was generally on the money.
Too bad, then, that the edge was muted. Or, to put it another way, Costello's cranky attitude isn't what it once was.