Many forever touring musicians are quite content to just come back with essentially the same set year after year, maybe with a few changes, or if they’re the fortunate few, with a new album of new material to promote.
Others concoct fresh formats, like a date or two or three to perform beloved past albums in their entirety (not so fresh anymore, really), or, as in the case of Richard Thompson, shows made up of audience requests or even of songs spanning a millennium.
Then there’s Elvis Costello. Twenty-five years ago he introduced "The Spectacular Spinning Songbook,” a gigantic Wheel Of Fortune-type wheel spun by fans for randomly selecting choice songs from Costello’s then already-extensive catalog. He dusted off the concept last year with a bigger and better show, hosted by his alter ego, beloved English vaudeville entertainer Napoleon Dynamite.
A spectacular CD/DVD package comprising two shows at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, along with an exclusive 10-inch vinyl EP, 40-page hardcover book with Costello’s tour diary and photos, and other memorabilia, was issued last December, at a whopping $262 cost, inside an extravagant box fronting a spinning replica of "The Spinning Songbook."
The expensive collectible was quickly derided in a “pastoral address” from one Right Reverend Jimmy Quickly, which appeared, in all places, on Costello’s own Web site, and condemned the price for “this lovely item” as “either a misprint or a satire”; it also took the most “unusual step” of “whole-heartedly recommending” the gift-giving purchase of the “vastly superior” Louis Armstrong’s 10-disc Ambassador Of Jazz set.
Luckily, Universal Music Enterprises last month released a “deluxe edition” of Elvis Costello & The Imposters: The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!! CD/DVD/28-page booklet in manageable digipak format and affordable price. Both CD and DVD overlap considerably, but enough flexibility was built into the Songbook concept to allow play of Costello faves that weren’t picked, by appending them to those that were or by magically assisting the wheel to land on the preferred choice.
After the DVD intro with Dynamite correctly assessing the Wheel as “the show business marvel of the age,” the program proceeded, with fabulous imaging and editing (some shots of Costello through a go-go dance cage in which a Miss Kitty Meow, “direct from her very special engagement in the Lusty Lady,” gyrated), sound, and of course, performance from Costello & Imposters (keyboard wizard Steve Nieve, “one and only” drummer Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher on bass--and ever-challenging backup vocals).
As many as 35 years after some of the songs were first performed, the Costello sound and fury was no less fresh and frenetic as they whipped through “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Nick Lowe’s “Heart Of The City,” “Mystery Dance” and “Radio Radio” nonstop before settling into the Spinning Songbook program, with Dynamite introducing himself, then summoning audience members “man or woman enough to spin” the big wheel, urging first contestant Matthew (“That’s a very fine name!”) to “spin it for all your worth!”
The first spin brought “Clubland,” which featured a bit of a Nieve-Costello jazz interlude (and a great shot of Costello playing his famous Jazzmaster guitar with “Elvis Costello” in script embedded in the neck). But the audience really caught a break with the spin that settled on “God Give Me Strength,” the Costello-Burt Bacharach collaboration for the 1996 Grace Of My Heart movie soundtrack that resulted in the 1998 Costello-Bacharach album Painted From Memory: His sweat-drenched performance of “God Give Me Strength,” as captured at this concert and witnessed at others, is a tour de force, putting him up there in the pantheon of pop music vocalists—not just rock singers.
He’s also one of the most generous singers, here giving an entire song over to Susanna Hoffs, Debbi Peterson and Vicki Peterson—The Bangles—whom he actually brought up at a "Spectacular Spinning Songbook” show 25 years ago, who this time sang his “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution),” a song they recorded on their own 2003 album Doll Revolution, while he and the Imposters played backup.
The band vamped subtly on the Blood, Sweat & Tears hit "Spinning Wheel," and a girl in the audience named Alison got the thrill of a lifetime when Costello sang the concert favorite in her honor, even bringing her up to stand with him while he sang.
After a few solo acoustic guitar songs, The Bangles were back to go-go dance--very well--on Costello's traditional concert finale "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” They stayed on for a well-deserved group bow with Costello and The Imposters—after Costello was finally able to cajole a wayward Nieve away from his Theremin.
The only negative, for those old enough to have been at the original "Songbook" shows, is that they'll likely need magnifying glasses to read the tiny print in the Elvis Costello & The Imposters: The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!! "deluxe edition" booklet.