These singular gigs ought to come with a caveat: only verifiable Elvis Costello junkies allowed.
The ability to purchase tickets for his stellar and often star-studded Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows – an encore performance of which once again wowed at the Wiltern Tuesday night after initially impressing at that L.A. venue last May – should come password-protected, and the only way to gain access is to name at least a dozen songs that aren't "Alison," "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio."
If you aren't apt to fully appreciate the unpredictable rarity on display, not to mention the astonishing breadth of material Costello can call up at will, you shouldn't be allowed to attend.
I don't doubt that there were many well-versed acolytes in the house, though their enthusiasm level sure took a while to register. Even during a raucous second encore – leading with the verbal barrage of "Beyond Belief," then a ripping run through "You Belong to Me" (only "Lipstick Vogue" was faster), another torrential reading of "Tokyo Storm Warning" and a finale of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding" with help from the Bangles and Costello's wife Diana Krall (looking like Aimee Mann in dark shades) laying down some serious Leon Russell licks – you could glance about and see entire sections seated and only somewhat engaged, as if admiring a new ballet they can't interpret.
Around me, you could sort the hardcore from the clueless in an instant. When the lights dimmed at 8:15, the older woman two seats to my life, who I suspect was only a tag-along industry wife, proceeded to play with her iPhone for 20 minutes, then promptly fell asleep, head-lolling and everything. And I was (pardon the brag) about six rows from the stage. Embarrassing. Meanwhile, a gaggle of loudmouths behind me, who seemed to take up an entire row, couldn't shut up for more than a verse and a chorus at any point that didn't involve an easily identifiable classic – of which there were maybe a half-dozen amid a 30-song set.
If I were Costello – and this were a perfectly just world – I'd administer entrance exams at the door, issuing refunds to those who know nothing, then offer a wait-list line of true fans the chance to get in. Arrogant? Probably, but Napoleon Solo (his MC alter ego) would undoubtedly find a way to pull it off charmingly.
Consequently, I'm writing this follow-up piece strictly for the Costello crazies like myself. If you're unaware of the show's conceit, go here to read about its 1986 germination and the marvelous revival of it last year. But in a nutshell, it's like this: There's a giant carnival wheel stage-left, and at several points in the 2½-hour show, audience members (all but one of them female) are brought up to give it a whirl.
Whatever it lands on – or whichever wedge our host nudges it toward – that's what gets played. The spinner then gets to watch either from the comfort of a barstool next to Steve Nieve (a versatile keys man with few rivals) or whilst dancing away inside a go-go cage.
It's a hoot, yes, and Costello – in a variety of hats and a light gray plaid suit that turned dark with sweat by the end of the show – brings the same performance aplomb to it that he did his television series Spectacle.
Here he roamed the aisles singing Randy Newman's "I've Been Wrong Before," seeking out another lucky lady to take a spin. He tossed in all manner of aside references, just to keep the audience (and seemingly his band the Imposters) guessing as to where he'd head next. He cracked thorny jokes: "As you can see," pointing to an old portable boob-tube at stage-right permanently left on UHF snow, "we have the TV tuned to Fox News. There's not a word of Mr. Hannity that I want to miss."
And he told highly amusing tales of unusual circumstances, like the time years ago when he first met Johnny Cash, who had become his pal Nick Lowe's father-in-law, though Costello admitted his memory of events in 1978-79 are "a little foggy back there, because I was trying to rid the world of alcohol by drinking it all." (For fun, they all cut a record in a "four-story Victorian pile" in Shepherds Bush – "and it was bloody terrible.")
Or how about the time, not so long ago, when Costello found himself at a Boston gala, fairly terrified to be playing Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place to Go" in front of the author, in a different time signature (a rapid waltz instead of 4/4), and with Chuck worshiper Keith Richards watching in the wings? No pressure there, although, given the version he played Tuesday night, he needn't have worried; it was a rich interpretation that amped up the feel Ã la Dylan '66 without dampening the impact of those playful rhymes.
He also brought along an additional "show business marvel": The Hammer of Songs. With that, rather than indulge another spin, the invited guest gets to pound a weight, and if it rises high enough to hit the bell, she can pick any song off the wheel. Our hammerer nailed it, then selected "Everyday I Write the Book," which benefited greatly from hearty harmonic interplay with bassist Davey Faragher. But seeing as they did that one last time at the Wiltern, I'd have picked "Human Hands," or "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," or "This Wheel's on Fire" (whether that meant we'd hear the Band tune or a batch of fire-related tunes)...
No, wait, I definitely would have picked "Imperial Chocolate" just to find out what that was. Pete Larsen looked it up for me: Last year in NYC that wedge produced two from Imperial Bedroom, "Shabby Doll" and "Beyond Belief," plus the ever-popular sinister grind of "I Want You" from Blood and Chocolate.
Ah well, we rabid die-hards got an incredible old-school fix anyway: When the wheel landed on a wedge labeled "Happy," which I assumed would be his kickoff cut from last year, "I Hope You're Happy Now," Costello instead launched into not one but four songs from 1980's soul-pop pastiche Get Happy!!, the most brilliantly pun-filled assortment in his deep catalog. In order: the Sam & Dave gem "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," followed by charging takes on "High Fidelity" and "5ive Gears in Reverse" and a roaring finish with "King Horse." So ebullient, you could see big smiles shared between Nieve and mighty, rock-steady drummer Pete Thomas.
Then there was his rethinking of the Beatles' "Please Please Me," treated to a "Be My Baby" feel … a robust rendition of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," with verses in Spanish from Chilean singer Marisol, the end of it sped-up to the Animals' original jaunty pace … and later another guest, Johnny Depp's paramour Vanessa Paradis, a recording artist in her own right (with Nieve as bandleader), who joined Costello for "Alison" (the "my aim is true" bit in French) and a wonderful version of the Zombies' "This Will Be Our Year."
Most captivating of all, however, was a take on Jesse Winchester's Job-like lament "Quiet About It" (for Levon Helm, who died two days later) and, to start the first encore, two piano-and-voice pieces, the sorrowful Costello/Bacharach composition "I Still Have That Other Girl" followed by a reworked "Talking in the Dark."
Not to sound uppity, but if you've read this far and aren't actually a Costello fan, my guess is you don't know half of what I'm talking about. That's not to say you wouldn't have enjoyed it to the hilt had you been there (and paid attention). But maybe you'd agree that uncommon shows like these – no one but no one attempts anything like this – really ought to be left to us superfans.
As I wrote that last line, it was announced: Dick Clark is dead of a heart attack at 82. Talk about an icon – pop culture, let alone rock 'n' roll, never would have been the same without him. Can't help but wonder what Costello might dedicate to him tomorrow night in Ontario (Canada, not California). Rest in peace.
Setlist: Elvis Costello & the Imposters at the Wiltern, Los Angeles, April 17, 2012
Main set: Pump It Up > Heart of the City (Nick Lowe cover) > Lipstick Vogue > Watching the Detectives / First spin: Riot Act / Second spin: No Particular Place to Go (Chuck Berry cover) / Third spin: Cry, Cry, Cry (Johnny Cash cover) / Fourth spin: Get Happy!! Medley: I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down > High Fidelity > 5ive Gears in Reverse > King Horse / Fifth spin: So Like Candy (with stop/start quotes from You're No Good) > Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (Animals cover, with guest vocalist Marisol) / I've Been Wrong Before (Randy Newman cover) / Sixth spin: Accidents Will Happen / The Hammer of Songs choice: Everyday I Write the Book / Seventh spin: Please Please Me (Beatles cover) / Quiet About It (Jesse Winchester cover) / A Slow Drag with Josephine / Alison (with guest vocalist Vanessa Paradis) / This Will Be Our Year (Zombies cover, with Paradis) / Out of Time (Rolling Stones cover, with Paradis)
First encore: I Still Have That Other Girl > Talking in the Dark (both just piano and voice) / (I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea > Radio Radio
Second encore: Beyond Belief > You Belong to Me > Tokyo Storm Warning / (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding (with the Bangles and Diana Krall)
Also on the Spectacular Spinning Songbook but not played: Episode of Blonde / I Want You / Deep Dark Truthful Mirror / Brilliant Mistake / The Comedians / Veronica / Just About Glad / This Wheel's on Fire / Turpentine / King's Ransom / Stella Hurt / Human Hands / Oliver's Army / Bedlam / Suit of Lights / Detectives vs. Hoover Factory / plus more theme wedges: Time, Big Boo Small Hoo, Toussaint, Napoleon Solo, Beauty or Beast?, Imperial Chocolate and a Joker wedge.