New York Times, October 28, 1986

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Elvis Costello

Stephen Holden

There is a side of the austere English post-punk rocker Elvis Costello that has always covertly aspired toward a Las Vegas style of pop glitz. And on Friday evening, at the fourth of his five performances at the Broadway Theater, Mr. Costello indulged that longing in a typically backhanded way, In the show, titled "The Spinning Songbook," the singer-songwriter emceed an audience participation extravaganza that suggested a satirical hybrid of Wheel of Fortune and mid-60's rock variety shows.

Playing a character named Napoleon Dynamite, Mr. Costello sent an assistant into the audience to pick volunteers who took turns spinning a giant roulette wheel marked off with 40 song titles. Once having chosen a song with a random spin of the wheel, each spectator was ushered to a go-go dancer's cage and encouraged to dance along with the music.

When Mr. Costello, with his band the Attractions, staged the same show recently in Los Angeles, he was joined by John Doe of X, Tom Waits, and members of the Bangles. At the Broadway Theater, Mr. Costello's guests included the Staten Island rocker David Johansen, in his blustery comic persona, Buster Poindexter, and the magician team of Penn and Teller. Although Mr. Costello's concerts have traditionally been characterized by an aloof, tight-lipped arrogance, on Friday he made an amiable emcee, always ready with smart ripostes. And the 2½-hour performance had the freewheeling zest of a post-punk vaudeville show.

In the nine years since Mr. Costello burst upon the pop scene, the sound of pop has evolved into an increasingly cold, full-bodied electronic chant. Mr. Costello's music, by contrast, has remained spare in texture, punkish in attitude, and extremely verbal. Who would have thought in 1977 that in the mid-80's, the surly singer-songwriter would seem like a die-hard keeper of the flame of rock tradition? But that is exactly how Mr. Costello appeared at Friday's concert, singing mostly original songs with the occasional rock oldie — most notably an impassioned "Ferry Across the Mersey" — thrown in. The music had the kind of spare ragged intensity and multi-leveled verbal energy that have largely vanished from contemporary rock. The show's high point was a solo segment, in which Mr. Costello performed "Party Girl," "Girls Talk" and "You Little Fool," among other songs, singing virtually a cappella, with minimal guitar plucking.

The evening ended on an oddly sour note. Following Mr. Costello's punchy rendition of Prince's "Pop Life," Penn Gillette tried to goad the singer into performing something by Bruce Springsteen, whom he tauntingly held up as "the greatest rock-and-roller the world has ever seen." Mr. Costello, apparently riled, kicked him off the stage and launched into a ferocious medley of "Pump It Up," "On Broadway" and "Twist and Shout."

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New York Times, October 28, 1986

Stephen Holden reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Friday, October 24, 1986, Broadway Theatre, New York.


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