You hear a lot of talk in performing circles, particularly in popular music, about breaking down the harriers between artist and audience. Last night at the Riviera, Elvis Costello brought the audience — or at least selected members of it — right up onstage with him.
He made them dance in the go-go cage. He invited them to watch Monday Night Football and drink Gatorade in the "Society Lounge" — three bar stools and a Formica counter in front of Steve Nieve's keyboards. He even let them determine the evening's selection of songs by giving the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" a twirl.
Of the three very different concerts that Costello is presenting in Chicago, last night's spinning spectacular was easily the hottest ticket. Sure, Sunday's show with the Confederates was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear Costello sing songs he'd never performed before this tour (and might never sing again) backed by the great James Burton and other musicians from Costello's King of America album.
Tonight's Chicago Costello finale should be killer as well. Costello and the Attractions, his longtime British backing band, will be playing old favorites and most of the new Blood and Chocolate album — his edgiest, most exciting music since the turn of the decade.
But for an evening of anything-goes rock 'n' roll, it was hard to beat the spinning songbook. The 12-foot gameshow-style wheel had 38 selections on it — from Costello favorites such as "Alison" and "Red Shoes" to rarely performed album sides to unlikely picks such as Prince's "Pop Life" and Skeeter Davis's "End of the World." Wherever the wheel stopped, that's what Costello and the Attractions would play.
Making good on his promise of special surprises, Costello brought the Bears' Ken Margerum to the stage as guest emcee, who then invited Keith Van Horne to take a turn in the go-go cage. (In Los Angeles, they got Tom Waits and the Bangles with Costello; in San Francisco, they got Huey Lewis; in Chicago, we get football players).
The wheel proved more effective than mere gimmickry, because some of the bigger surprises were some of the strongest musical highlights — like when the wheel stopped on "Ferry." After saying he was going to play a medley of Bryan Ferry's greatest hits, Elvis sang a gorgeous version of "Ferry Cross the Mersey," which he used to frame his own stirring "Tiny Steps."
When he encored with "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," he was joined by a special guest on the television screen — President Reagan.
And when the wheel's selection didn't fit his whim, he simply disregarded it. Daryl Hall's "Dreamtime" was given short shrift, while a spinner named Alison was honored with the song of the same name, even though the wheel selected something else. Even when he's making all the rules, Costello can't resist the temptation to break a few of them.