"Get a big hold of this wheel. Let's spin for your life!" So advised smarmy compere Napoleon Dynamite, a.k.a. Elvis Costello, as a University of California, Irvine, student plucked from the audience made ready to spin a garish "Spinning Songbook" carny wheel during Costello's show at the Bren Center Friday night.
And just as that spinning wheel would determine which songs he would play (albeit with some human intervention Friday) Costello of late has been keeping a vital edge to his shows by spinning them into the unexpected. He perhaps reached his peak this last year when at a five-night LA stand he played in a variety of musical contexts — from solo to fronting former Elvis Presley sidemen — while embellishing the proceedings with the song wheel, a request light, go-go cage and piano-bar furnishings (all of which were onstage Friday, along with a toy drum set and tourist slide show).
But Costello can't constantly deal in surprise without the unexpected sometimes happening to him. At his solo show at the Bren Friday it arrived in the form of a throat so sore one almost needed cough lozenges just to listen to it.
Through the years, Costello's decidedly non-singer's voice has been transformed through force of will to where he's become practically the Sinatra of rock, with remarkable communicative power, shading and inflection. While it probably would have been wiser had he cancelled Friday's show, his necessarily brief performance displayed that willpower forcing his wracked voice — he often was barely able to speak between songs — to perform with much of its customary intensity.
The 17-song set included Heartbreaker Benmont Tench adding piano to the loungy torcher "What Would I Do?" and a playful rhythm machine backing to the raucous "Uncomplicated" and "Pump It Up." It was just Costello's guitar and harried voice making most of the songs work, and negating the gimmick-cluttered stage. Although he lost his voice in places, he made beautiful work of "New Amsterdam" which segued into a moving cover of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," and of a similarly segued "Radio Sweetheart" and Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said."
Along with the unexpected came the unpropitious. Because his voice was failing, Costello brought out pal and opening act Nick Lowe to duet on Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" Though each has been performing the song for a cumulative two decades, they had never before performed it together. Topping the novelty of that, though, was that Lowe's microphone was off throughout, which if nothing else made the "Where is the harmony?" line in the song rather prophetic. The lyrics' pacifist message also was clearly lost on those involved in a bit of a fight on the arena floor during the song.
Costello ending the show abruptly with a beat-box version of "Pump It Up," during which his raw, Stones-like guitar slashes and declamatory vocals — including snippets of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" — caused fans to rush the stage.
Sorely missed, though, were the songs he's been performing on his other tour dates, including "Party Girl," "Almost Blue," "Girl's Talk," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and a new song with the promising title "Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness."
Lowe's brisk 11-song set found him to be not nearly as captivating a solo performer, with his limited guitar style failing to fully flesh out his songs. It was still a winning set, though, with his Everlys-influenced voice blowing some spirit into catchy, expertly crafted pop songs like "Heart," "The Rose of England," "Cruel to Be Kind" and "I Knew the Bride."