Elvis Costello has based his entire career upon the notion that rock 'n' roll needn't pander to audience expectation.
But even those who've followed the cagey British singer-songwriter since his rise from the punk scene in the 1970s could not have fathomed what Costello had up his sleeve for his current tour.
You needn't be a financial analyst to know that, when an artist releases an album, he rounds up the band he recorded it with, books dates in the biggest venues he can fill, then performs the new songs in concert.
It's called marketing.
And, as Costello made clear in a bizarre, sellout three-night stand at Chicago's 1700-capacity Riviera Theater last week, it's a concept he would love to wipe from the face of the Earth.
For starters, Costello is using not one but two bands to support him on his six-city spin through America.
Last Sunday at the Riviera, it was the Confederates, a group of Nashville session players and former Elvis Presley sidemen whom Costello worked with on the King of America LP he released in February.
Monday marked the return of his old group, the Attractions, with support from the Chicago Bears' Ken Margerum as emcee and Keith Van Horne dancing in a go-go cage. Tuesday, it was Costello and the Attractions on their own.
And instead of sticking to a set list of songs made up largely of his brand new LP, Blood and Chocolate, Costello covered the sort of ground in three nights that most bands don't cover on an entire tour.
The first show touched upon his King of America material, offered a set with Costello playing solo and concluded with Costello taking audience requests. such as the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink."
Show No. 2 was dubbed the night of "The Spectacular Spinning Songbook," in honor of the 12-foot game-show wheel audience members spun to see what Costello and the band would play. From early hits like "Allison" and seldom-performed Costello tunes, from R & B classics to Prince's "Pop Life," the concert's course was mapped out only by a spin of the wheel.
And while Tuesday night's show held as close to convention as Costello gets — he played 10 of the new LP's 11 tracks and a fat selection of his best-loved oldies — the singer was by no means compromising. Fueling many of his career's best songs with a passionate, often playful delivery, Costello challenged his audience to keep up with him throughout the 2½ hour performance.
Though Costello and the Attractions gave bright, succinct renditions of many of the numbers on Blood and Chocolate, his strongest LP in half a decade, the singer excelled most when he dared to elaborate on the bitter mood of his new album.
Snipping the light introduction from "I Want You" and devoting all his energy to stormy electric guitar work and suicidal vocals, Costello extended the number into an opus of frustration.
His whisper-to-a-scream reading brought the deep-seated misery in "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" above the tune's pop-rock surface. Often wrenching his lungs a capella after the song had stopped, Costello simply refused to give up.
With Costello spitting out the lyrics in "Watching the Detectives" or diving unexpectedly into free form jazz in "Ciubland," his older material became just as compelling.
Later, when the group returned for an encore, an electric sign perched atop a speaker flashed the word "request." The singer picked song titles from the resulting roar and tore into scorching versions of "Pump It Up," "Radio, Radio" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?"
Even on a night when he plans what he'll play, Costello thrives on spontaneity.