With his too-big head and too-small suit (and oversized spectacles), there was something a little cheesy and comical about Elvis Costello when he emerged from England in 1977.
Over the years, the punk rocker evolved into a musical adventurer and sophisticate, the Cole Porter of rock who worked with a classical string quartet, a Swedish opera diva, a New Orleans soul legend, the grand dame of jazz piano and even Paul McCartney. But the humor — and cheese — never left.
Costello has never been cheesier and funnier in concert than he was Wednesday at the State Theatre. He came on like part carnival barker, part game-show host, part lounge lizard, part vaudevillian clown — but never like a rock star. That's because Mr. Hyperactive went interactive, old-school style with his "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" presentation. He used a giant roulette wheel, spun by various concertgoers, to help determine his set list.
This random shuffle approach did not make for great pacing, but this nearly three-hour show was not about flow, it was about fun — unfettered, free-wheeling fun. Costello, 56, demonstrated his innate goofiness, admirable derring-do, nimble showmanship and endless charm as he joked with wheel spinners who sometimes fudged with the wheel (he assisted them) and then sat at his Society Lounge bar or danced in a go-go dancer's cage as he serenaded them. (Costello even joined Heidi and Lisa, who have listened to Elvis for 30 years, in the cage.)
The evening actually opened with a shotgun-paced barrage of early Elvis, including a revved-up "Mystery Dance" and a rollicking "Radio Radio." Then it became "Wheel of Fortune" meets "Austin Powers" as Costello's quick wit often offset the ballad-heavy luck of the 40-song roulette spin. At one point, he just took over and, without explanation, offered a medley of the Band's jubilant rocker "This Wheel's on Fire" and the smoldering blues "The River in Reverse." That had to rival the "time" medley for the long night's musical highlights as Costello and the Imposters played a few songs with "time" in the title, ending with the intense "Man Out of Time" with the star strolling through the crowd singing and high-fiving fans.
Beyond the versatile, impassioned singing and the delightful raconteurship, Costello proved himself as a guitar star, unleashing everything from Twilight Zone-evoking riffs to wah wah funk to blistering blues. But the instrumental MVP had to be keyboardist Steve Nieve, who added the right atmospheric enhancements, whether it was a jazzy bridge on "Shipbuilding," a churchy organ on "Clown Time Is Over" or weird screeches in "Chelsea."
Costello threw in covers of the Animals' seethingly urgent "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and Prince's joyous "Purple Rain," which was part of a long encore — including the groovy "Everyday I Write the Book," the liberating "Peace, Love and Understanding" and the romantic "Alison" entwined with "Tracks of My Tears" and "Your Cheatin' Heart" — that was all about unfettered musical fun.