Out of 20-some shows in 20-some years of encountering Elvis Costello live, from suddenly announced club gigs to lavish evenings with Burt Bacharach, I've probably seen two or three consistently stronger performances than the one he and his first-rate band the Imposters turned in Wednesday night, their first of two sets at the art-deco Wiltern in Los Angeles this week.
But I don't think I've seen a better one overall, and none have been nearly as memorable — in part because, like the Bacharach teaming, I know this is something I'll likely never see again. Surely those who witnessed the debut of this Spectacular Singing Songbook idea at the Beverly Theater in 1986 must have felt the same way: by its very nature, the concept guarantees no other show will be quite the same.
That night, as part of a stretch of themed performances that included a set with the Attractions and another with the Confederates (the one-off group that backed him on the rootsier advances of King of America), Costello unveiled this most crowd-enlivening of his many concert conceits over the years: a stage design adorned with a shimmering go-go cage at one end (guests are welcome to dance) and a giant carnival wheel at the other, covered in yellow and red (and a few purple) wedges, with song titles on each. (At the Wiltern, this scene was further enhanced by an encompassing backdrop of a faded old TV set locked on a color test pattern.)
"The theatrical marvel of the age" was how our host described it with vaudevillian exaggeration Wednesday night, just after a brisk four-song opening that harked back not only to his earliest days (via rips through "Mystery Dance" and "Radio Radio," as breakneck-paced as ever) but also to the life-changing, career-shifting era from whence the Spinning Wheel emerged. It's telling that he seems to be opening all of these Revolver Tour engagements (the month-long run began in Reno and ends with three nights at NYC's Beacon Theatre) with "I Hope Your Happy Now" — that's among his fiercest (yet buoyant) attacks on lost love, yet its title sentiment couldn't be more fitting.
Back in '86, when the brilliantly thorny Blood & Chocolate was dumped into the marketplace mere months after the heralded King of America, Costello was just beginning to come out of turmoil, divorcing both his first wife and first stateside label, altering course by taking up with (and soon marrying) then-Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan and moving from Columbia Records (which failed to promote him sufficiently) to Warner Bros. (where he wound up facing the same problem). Seemingly liberated both creatively and romantically, he nonetheless still seemed trapped by the industry.
These days, though record execs still don't know what to do with him, Costello, 56, is a much happier entity unto himself: revered singer-songwriter, iconic yet iconoclastic Hall of Famer, encyclopedic talk-show host, Mr. Diana Krall. He's a major-label artist working in independent fashion, issuing genre-hopping projects from a widening array of niche-filling outlets (although lately he's suggested he may not make another album).
These Wiltern shows ostensibly promote last November's National Ransom, one of his best assortments. Yet, despite a sublime solo-acoustic first encore comprised of the disc's two bittersweet tunes that evoke the '20s and '30s — the deceptive swing of "A Slow Drag with Josephine" and the doleful lament "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," both of which lent some structure to the evening's play-it-as-it-lays approach — revisiting the Spinning Songbook right now seems primarily a lark. It's something fun to do simply because he can.
And to some extent it isn't as fully rehearsed as you might expect. When the wheel landed on Paul McCartney's "Let Me Roll It," it was apparent in Costello's chunky assessment of the song's signature squiggle riff that he hadn't attempted it much, nor did the Imposters always know where their bandleader was headed during a striking rethinking of "Pump It Up" that traded the usual thump-thump-thump for a strolling N'awlins piano blues in 6/8.
Even on numbers this bunch has dashed through dozens, maybe hundreds of times — "Everyday I Write the Book," "I Want You" — there was still a sense of winging it, of the band instinctively knowing where to go next yet being confounded when Costello would decide to, say, turn back into a chorus sooner than expected, or scuttle from one dynamic to another.
That's what I mean about experiencing greater consistency elsewhere: When they know precisely what's on the setlist, Costello and his group tend to lock in magnificently, maintaining tighter parameters around their expansiveness and explosiveness. But that's also what I mean about never seeing a show like this again: Costello has rarely been so loose yet still commanding, and so eager to mix in the unexpected. Never mind the McCartney tune — when else are you likely to hear him consecutively play complete versions of most every tune he has with "Time" in the title?
That's what happened when he landed on one of eight "Jackpot" wedges, bonuses that produce several songs on a theme. (Unless "Napoleon Solo" comes up, in which he case he chooses whatever he likes — this time "Leave My Kitten Alone.") You can tell he favors landing on a few of these during each show, as he cheated the wheel twice to get "Time" and "Girl" to come up at key points.
Hey, it's his wheel, he can do as he likes. For instance: Isabella, the woman sitting in front of me, got swept away from her boyfriend by Costello as he sauntered across the floor of the Wiltern during "The Long Honeymoon," then returned to the stage with her on his arm. She wanted to hear "I Want You," but first the wheel hit "Stella Hurt" and then "New Lace Sleeves." Costello was undeterred: "You know what? We're just gonna play ‘I Want You.' Damn show-business machinery!"
The Jackpot wedges were certainly worth tilting the wheel for, however. "Time," which he nudged toward instead of "Accidents Will Happen," yielded first the slow version of "Clowntime Is Over," then a rollicking "Strict Time" and "Next Time Round," a singalong for the Rolling Stones' "Out of Time" and finally a suitably mighty "Man Out of Time" to end the main set. (In Oakland, at the Fox Theater, he landed on "I Can Sing a Rainbow" the second night and performed color songs: "Green Shirt," "Blue Chair," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," a bit of "Purple Rain.")
"Girl," on the other hand, which he spun into place after a dramatic reading of "All Grown Up" abetted only by pianist Steve Nieve (the first time they've performed that 1996 track), helped build to a roaring third-encore conclusion. It began with a lovely handling of the Beatles' "Girl," followed by the aptly titled "Spooky Girlfriend" and "Sulky Girl." (Oakland also got "This Year's Girl" and "Party Girl.") Then came another clutch of Costello standards: "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Watching the Detectives," a rousing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding."
He played 18 songs in the main set, more than half of which were chosen by guests (mostly women) who got to admire their wheel selections while sipping martinis at the on-stage bar next to Nieve. Then Costello changed hats and jackets — now plaid, now gold lamé — and played another 13 songs in three encores. It was epic, riveting, constantly surprising — utterly unforgettable.