Elvis Costello came on as all jovial show business — carny barker, M.C. and musical attraction — on Monday at the Beacon Theater. It was part of a three-night stand there for his Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour with his longtime band, the Imposters.
Elvis Costello with Steve Nieve, piano; Pete Thomas, drums; and Davey Faragher, bass.
A smiling go-go girl danced in a cage, cocktail glasses sat alongside Steve Nieve’s piano, and dominating the stage was a giant roulette wheel with song titles instead of numbers. Repeating the concept of a tour Mr. Costello did 25 years ago, songs were to be chosen by audience members spinning the wheel. He promised “songs of love, songs about sex, songs about death and dancing, but not necessarily in that order.”
For part of the show he stayed with the concept, bantering with audience members and leading the band through choices from the wheel (which largely overlapped his best-of albums). At one point he put on a top hat and flaunted a silver-tipped cane. Between songs the band played mock game-show music; perhaps since the Beacon has a Broadway address, Mr. Nieve kept dropping in bits of “On Broadway.”
Mr. Costello built loopholes into the wheel: one for “solo” songs he could choose — like the ragtimey “Slow Drag With Josephine,” from the “National Ransom” album of 2010 — and slots that were themes instead of song titles. “Time” came up, for a miniset including his own “Clowntime Is Over,” “Strict Time” and “Man Out of Time” and the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.” He brought out the Bible Code Sundays, his brother Ronan MacManus’s Celtic band, to play along on a few unlisted songs. (There was other family, too: Tennessee Thomas, the drummer Pete Thomas’s daughter, joined the band on a second drum kit, matching her father fill for fill.) Mr. Costello turned some of his own songs into medleys, quoting sources like Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. When he felt like it, he just moved the wheel to the song he wanted to play. “If I can’t cheat, who can?” he teased.
But the real and gratifying cheat was that there is, in the end, no way to keep Mr. Costello’s songs in any shallow entertainment mode. His torrents of words hold desire, rage, wounds and revenge, from the scathing personal scale of “Alison” to the historical sweep of “Oliver’s Army.” The music converges from all over — punk, soul, British Invasion, Tex-Mex, tango, country — to carry those words and sort out their emotions.
Even in music dating to the 1970s, the Imposters didn’t treat the songs as rote oldies. They were still pushing and pulling at them, putting (for instance) a guitar-scratching funk finale onto “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea.” And Mr. Costello inhabited his characters completely when he sang: all the ache, all the venom. None was more telling than “I Want You,” a slow, seething, self-lacerating and furious confession of passion and need, with jabs of bitter lead guitar. It didn’t feel like show business at all. Maybe that was the real proof of Mr. Costello’s showmanship.