Scanning the set lists from Elvis Costello's Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour, you could get the impression that the man formerly known as Declan Patrick MacManus has assembled a career-spanning retrospective — or, to put it another way, a live sampler of his greatest hits. On any given night, Costello and his band the Impostors are likely to pull out everything from first-album favourites "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" to the title track of 2010's estimable but underpublicized National Ransom. According to Costello himself, though, these Songbook performances are more zippy, vaudevillian performance art than a stroll down memory lane.
"I don't see it as looking backwards," he stresses, reached at his part-time residence in New York City. "The songs are there in the moment as we're playing them, whether I wrote them last year, or 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or whether I didn't even write them. I mean, if we're playing them, they're happening in that moment. They could be songs from 70 years ago; they'd still be happening right now. It's not a history lesson; it's just music."
The Spectacular Spinning Songbook concept is also an attempt to give the audience some input into the performance. Over the course of the evening, audience members will be invited on-stage to spin an enormous roulette wheel emblazoned with 40-odd song titles, with Costello and band ready to perform whatever lucky number turns up.
The Songbook itself, he explains, is "a gigantic, not to say immense, piece of theatrical machinery."
"It must be, I don't know, 100 feet tall or something. At least that's what it looks like to me when I come on the stage," he continues, laughing at his own hyperbole. "It dominates the stage, anyway, this wheel. I think it's actually about 20 feet high, and it has coloured banners on it with song titles. Some of the banners are purple, and they're jackpots, which are simple to explain in that they might be a word like time, which is found in the title of maybe half a dozen songs of mine, or the word girl. If that should come up, it gives us the opportunity to play some of those songs without any other announcement. So that's like winning a prize, when that happens. And there's a green ‘joker' banner, which means that the person that comes up gets to select any song from those on display — because people do come up and have a favourite. They're hoping luck will smile upon them, and sometimes they spin it and it comes up, and sometimes it doesn't, you know.
"Part of the game is that all of the songs that we've got — whether they be well-known or obscure or written by other people — have an equal chance of coming up. Now, I can't say that we don't cheat sometimes, when we're feeling like it. But, you know, it makes for a different connection with the audience. For one thing, somebody or a couple of people are up on the stage, representing the audience, actually determining what comes next. There's some sport in that: we get to hear from them, and they're invited, if they should care to, to go and dance, if their selection should suit that. There's a lot of fast tunes up there. But there's also just the prospect of hearing a very well-known tune followed by something you've never heard of, and it falls to us to make musical sense of whatever comes up."
Based on The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook — a live CD-and-DVD package just released at an affordable price after Costello publicly lambasted his record company for gouging consumers with an earlier, and ludicrously expensive, limited-edition box set — the innate unpredictability of the format has invigorated both the singer and his band. Keyboardist Steve Nieve, in particular, is on fire, adding warped Moog textures and splashy piano solos to formerly bare-bones arrangements.
"He is incredible, and I don't think he gets nearly enough notice for the work that he's done," Costello concurs. "Both as a composer and certainly in the work we've done together, he's constantly surprising.…It's hard to say what he's playing half the time, and what instrument he's playing: all sorts of sounds are coming out. It's fantastic."
Costello adds that another wheel-of-fortune option is a banner marked "Joanna," which, of course, derives from British rhyming slang for "piano." It's a chance for the singer and his long-time accompanist to delve into the more intimate side of Costello's vast repertoire.
"We usually rehearse three or four songs in the afternoon from a stack of 25 or more that we might be considering," he notes. "Depending on the mood and the pace of the show, we'll decide what we'll do in the moment, if that banner should come up. Sometimes we'll do two or even three songs if it's feeling right. Likewise, there's a banner that says ‘Napoleon solo', which is a joke based on my MC alias for this show, Napoleon Dynamite. That calls for me to play a solo tune on acoustic guitar."
Costello offers no apologies for turning the rock-concert experience into a more theatrical one. As he rather wryly notes, "Everything in show business is (theatrical) to a degree, you know. You don't go up there in your street clothes. And I've worked with a nom de guerre — a nom de plume, a nom de plank — all my career, so to me it's not unusual to take on a character to go up there. It doesn't make what you're singing about less sincere, because plenty of people in show business have names other than the ones they were christened with."
The singer-guitarist does bristle audibly when it's suggested that his spinning-songbook concept is a means of shaking off the usual concert protocols of the slow build and the big finish. That's my fault, though: rather than asking him if he was intent on avoiding the predictable, I posit that he's trying to bypass monotony.
"I wouldn't be on the stage at all if I felt there was anything monotonous about anything I do," he says, with a trace of the angry-young-man snarl that was his late-'70s stock in trade. At 57, however, baiting the media seems to have lost its allure, and he affably adds that even as far back as 1981's country-tinged Almost Blue, he's made a point of working within different formats.
"I play solo; I've played with other kinds of musicians from other worlds of music; the last time I was in Vancouver I played Malkin Bowl with the Sugarcanes, a band that's largely acoustic," he explains. "And I get to play festival occasions with an orchestra: a jazz orchestra or a symphony orchestra. Believe me, that stops it from getting monotonous. Each performance that you do that requires slightly different dynamics really, really keeps the music from getting routine."
And if some of those performances require audience participation, a gigantic roulette wheel, and the spangled presence of Napoleon Dynamite? Well, let's just say that this provocative and prolific artist is also perfectly at home in the role of the beloved entertainer.