New Jersey Star-Ledger, May 24, 2011
Elvis Costello's songbook spins
And people wonder why his fans are obsessive about him.
There was Elvis Costello, the back of his sports jacket wet with perspiration, hunched over his hand-held microphone in the aisles of the Beacon Theatre on Sunday night. Onstage, his backing band the Imposters had already charged through 10 songs and would keep up the pace for 20 more, but they’d slowed down the tempo for an aching reading of "God Give Me Strength," a song Costello wrote with Burt Bacharach. Comedian Mike Myers stood onstage, too, a little awed in his Joy Division T-shirt, snapping photos of Costello as he worked the sold-out house.
And under the spotlight, Costello packed 10 Woody Allen movies’ worth of guilt, shame, romantic longing and urbane devastation into his performance. So effortlessly did he bring the character of the wronged husband in "God Give Me Strength" to life that it was difficult to believe that he was the same musician who had scrapped his performance at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair just five nights before due to throat problems.
"God Give Me Strength" earned Costello his second standing ovation of the evening. Many more were to come. By the end of the 2 ½-hour concert, audience members had given up on sitting down between songs; when Costello concluded with an extended run through "(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," 50-year-olds in suits were bopping up and down like kids in the pit at Starland Ballroom. The Sunday evening show was the first of three sold-out shows at the Beacon, and the latest stop for Costello, his band, his go-go dancer and his gigantic yellow, red and purple wheel of songs.
The Spectacular Spinning Songbook — the Imposters’ repertoire splayed across a game-show wheel — was back in New York City after more than two decades in mothballs. Costello and his proxies stalked the concert hall, looking for volunteers to give it a spin. (He spotted and netted Myers early.) After playing the game, participants were invited to sit at an onstage minibar or dance in a go-go booth. And wherever the needle pointed, that’s what Costello and his band would perform.
Well, in theory. Costello is too much of a showman to hand his set lists over to Lady Luck completely. As he did the last time the Spinning Songbook toured, Costello had a habit of leaning on the big wheel and making it stop where he wanted it to. As a result, the tour offers more of a greatest-hits concert than its conceit would lead an uninitiated attendee to believe. There were obscure titles among the 40-plus songs listed on the wheel, but when the audience cheered hard for a particular number, Costello was unable to resist the temptation to tamper with (or ignore) his own device.
What he did with those selections was another matter entirely. Organist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas have been playing with Costello since the ’70s; bassist Davey Faragher joined the band a decade ago. The Imposters are basically the Attractions with Faragher replacing Bruce Thomas, and the Attractions — authors of some of the greatest small-combo arrangements in pop history — have always loved to kick their material around to see what happens.
The anthemic "Pump It Up" was played as a slow waltz-tempo blues with Costello and Nieve back-to-back on piano and organ; character study "Veronica" (co-written with Paul McCartney and given an ornate arrangement on the Spike album) was reimagined as Byrds-style folk-rock; the ’80s pop hit "Everyday I Write the Book" became an exercise in heavenly, upbeat soul. (The Songbook also advertised something called "Watching the Detectives vs. Hoover Factory"; your correspondent was rooting hard for that one to come up.) Some selections prompted meditations on themes. One spin became an excuse to jam together a raucous version of the punk rock "This Year’s Girl," a slashing take on the much-loved B-side "Girls Talk" and a cover of the Beatles’ "Girl."
When Costello allowed the Spinning Songbook to take its own course, its choices proved inspired. "Black and White World," a track from the soul-rock album "Get Happy!!," gave him an excuse to show off his sensitivity on the sonorous low strings of his electric guitar. "Flutter and Wow," a little-known ballad from the recent Momofuku album, was even better — a slow-burning statement of a man surprised by desire. When the needle stopped at "Flutter and Wow," there were a few groans of displeasure; by the time the terrific song was finished, nobody was dissatisfied.
This, more than anything else, is what the Spinning Songbook is about. Costello loves to play the role of the cheeky carnival barker in the straw hat, but he’s also keen to confront the crowd with a visual representation of the depth of his catalog. There were 40 fantastic songs on that wheel, and he easily could have added another 40. He’s the rare artist whose album sides are every bit as fascinating as his world-famous material. In the midst of his hit-studded charge to the finish line, Costello dropped "Clowntime is Over, No. 2," an alternate take of a deep cut from Get Happy!! He sang the moody ballad just as passionately as he had when he performed the eternal "Alison."
Costello was not in full command of his remarkable voice. Signs of the bronchitis that forced the postponement of the Montclair show were evident. He was occasionally hoarse, and sometimes did not hit his high notes with the power that his fans are accustomed to hearing. But one of the most rewarding things about catching the Attract-, er, the Imposters in concert is watching how these skilled musicians pick each other up. When Costello struggled a bit with his Beatles cover, Steve Nieve compensated with some deft, impressionistic melodica. Faragher fell behind momentarily on "The Long Honeymoon," but Thomas was right there to catch him with a dextrous drum fill. And when the band started to cook, as they did on a scalding version of "(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea," the live mixes became an electrical storm of organ flash, wailing theremin, overdriven guitar and snare-drum thunder.
The Imposters will come to Red Bank and Atlantic City in July, but these shows are not scheduled to include the Spinning Songbook. There are no immediate plans to make up the Wellmont date, but Costello has promised that should he add another leg to this tour, he’ll bring the Songbook to Montclair. Cross your fingers, folks.
Elvis Costello and the Imposters
Where and when: Tonight at the Beacon Theatre, Broadway and 74th Street, New York; July 22 at Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, Atlantic City; July 26 at the Count Basie Theatre, 99 Monmouth St., Red Bank. All shows at 8 p.m.
How much: The Beacon is sold out. $55 to $95 for Borgata; tickets go on sale Saturday, call (866) 900-4849 or visit theborgata.com. $59.50 to $129.50 for Count Basie; call (732) 842-9000 or visit countbasietheatre.org.
The Star-Ledger, May 24, 2011
Photo by Andrew Burton.