For a songwriter of substance, the key to a lengthy career as a concert performer is the curation of your catalogue of songs.
It's finding the balance between revisionism and striking out in new directions; giving audiences the tunes that they want, but also maintaining your own interest and self-respect by shining a light on songs that have a lower profile but may be your towering artistic achievements.
Elvis Costello has a bigger problem than most. In a remarkable career spanning 29 albums plus a variety of collaborations, he has accumulated an exceptional body of work, with very few songs not worthy of inclusion in a live show.
He's come up with a novel approach to dealing with the nightly set-list dilemma. On some of his shows, including his performance at the Palais next week, he employs the Spectacular Spinning Songwheel. Audience members select the next song for Costello and his band the Imposters by spinning the wheel. It requires a band of great versatility to deliver this show, but the Imposters are up to the job.
"It could present you with a ballad as the first number; it could present you with what's normally supposed to be your finale number at the top of the show," Costello says. "It asks you to really do something with every song. Some of the fun of the wheel is watching the most well-known titles sail past and having it land on something that no one has ever heard before … It might be the first time that some people have heard that tune, but that doesn't matter. We won't put them up there if we don't think we can give a good account of them."
While the wheel sometimes throws up some curiosities, Costello doesn't avoid playing the songs he knows people expect to hear. "Watching the Detectives," "Alison," "Oliver's Army," "Shipbuilding" or "Everyday I Write the Book" are songs that would feature in a greatest-hits set should he decide to do such a show, and chances are every audience will hear most of those.
"I've never really had any hits, not really," Costello says. "There are some famous songs and they have stuck around. Most of my famous songs have something about them that people want to hear and we can still find corners of them that we haven't completely worn bare."
His past two albums, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (2009) and National Ransom (2010), recorded with producer T-Bone Burnett, delve into musical styles such as folk and vintage music hall, while his current shows with the Imposters suggest his affiliation with urgent, spiky power pop is far from over. The only difference now is Costello doesn't subscribe to the traditional process of album releases and album-themed tours. He's even adopted an approach that could be dubbed an "anti-release".
"I put two songs out from the last group of songs as 78s," he says. "I just like them as objects. I'd be quite happy if people just found them. I've been planting things out there now for a while, in various forms. You'd be really amazed by how deep into space you can hide something on the internet. If you don't flag a song that you put out there, no one will ever find it … Everybody is worried about ubiquity and instantaneous reactions; I actually think it's the small treasures that are interesting."
Elvis Costello & the Imposters play the Palais, St Kilda, on January 25 and A Day on the Green at Rochford Wines, Yarra Valley, on January 26, with Sunnyboys, Jo Jo Zep & the Falcons, Dark Horses featuring Tex Perkins, plus Stephen Cummings.