Although a lot of rock stars act as if anything might happen in concert, that sadly isn't often the case in the age of a million lighting cues and programmed backing tracks.
So it was exciting to see the notion of spontaneity alive and well in a generous, skillfully executed and often unscripted 2 hour and 15 minute performance by Elvis Costello and the Imposters on Monday at King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne.
It's called the Revolver Tour, a nod to the return of the spectacular, spinning songbook shtick that Costello first employed in the late 1980s. The set list was formulated by spins of a brightly colored roulette wheel that dominated a stage decorated in a mix of vaudevillian and lounge styles, as well as a go-go dancer cage.
As master of ceremonies, Costello was a charming combination of game-show host and circus ringmaster. He invited audience members on stage to spin the wheel, then take a seat next to him with a cocktail — or dance in that cage — as he and the band performed.
In the early going, he pointed his walking stick at the crowd, announcing that the cane was equipped with a compass that "sets the true course for a thrill ride to ecstasy."
Before the first audience member took her spin, Costello jokingly warned that "these people's enjoyment of the next five minutes is entirely in your hands."
Well, not exactly.
Even with all the flashy gimmicks, Costello and the Imposters were the force behind this show. The band showed impressive range, with keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas demonstrating the elasticity to shift from clanging rockers such as "Mystery Dance" to evocative, whisper-soft ballads such as "Almost Blue."
The latter surfaced in a trio of songs that the band hitched to one of the wild-card slots on the big wheel. "I Can Sing a Rainbow," an umbrella category for Costello songs that mention colors, also allowed the band to tear into "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."
When the wheel landed on another wild-card, "Allen Toussaint," Costello responded with the Big Easy legend's "Nearer to You." That soulful ballad took Costello into his expressive falsetto — and to the balcony, where he snagged yet more folks to spin for the next song.
Again and again, the blind luck of the wheel yielded terrific surprises.
"So Like Candy," a Costello songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney, melded seductive verses with an irresistibly melodic chorus. That song segued into a simmering, show-stopping interpretation of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
Costello inevitably found his way to favorites such as "Watching the Detectives" and "Alison," although he had to offer a cheating nudge to the wheel when it landed one slot away from the latter. He also embraced his inner-troubadour in a hushed trio of acoustic songs that preceded the band's rocking finale.
"You better help me," he told the crowd at one point. "I can't do it myself!"
It's a deal. Costello and his spinning wheel are a winning combination.