"I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused," proclaims Elvis Costello in the lyric to his popular song "(Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes."
But until his deliciously loony "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" audience-participation show at the Tower last night, I never knew it was within Costello's power to actually live happily by those words.
Since his U.S. debut in 1977, this British singer/songwriter has generally cast himself as a poison penman of Dylan-esque proportions, with a fearsome disposition to match.
Last evening, though, in his new identity as "Napoleon Dynamite," Costello came on cute, as a convivial showman and crooner — one part Pat Sajak and one part Al Jolson (whose vintage recordings of "You Made Me Love You," "Give My Regards To Broadway," "April Showers" and more serenaded the crowd for a half-hour before Costello's appearance).
The "hook" of this show — one of three distinctly different concert events which Costello is staging at the Tower this week — was a carnival-style giant wheel, upon which 40 song titles were listed. Assisted by a cigar-chomping, tuxedoed gent named Xavier Valentine, Costello invited members of the audience up to spin the wheel and thus ordain the songs he would perform on the spot with his longtime backing trio, The Attractions.
Some E.C. lesser-knowns like "King Horse" and unexpected covers of Prince's "Pop Life" and Tom Petty's "American Girl" were thus selected. "This Year's Girl" came up three times but was played only once, thank you, along with Costello classics like "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding," "Every Day I Write The Book" and "Less Than Zero."
In the middle of the two-hour concert, most of the band took a "commercial break," leaving Elvis and pianist Steve Nieve to do their "Lake Tahoe"-style (he claimed) ballad interpretations of "Hoover Factory" and "Shot with His Own Gun."
Later on, Costello threw in another tender heartacher, the classic "Alison." For the most part, however, it was Elvis the Rocker, doing the "Pump It Up," and providing the most fun a person could have standing up.
The lucky wheel-spinners certainly enjoyed a special thrill in the spotlight. Yet I suspect these pleasures were vicariously enjoyed by almost everyone else within shouting distance of the stage. As his/her song title came up, the spinner was given an option of sitting out the number at an on-stage "bar" stocked with Gatorade and schlocky self-help books. Or the selectee could climb into the "Kitten McKracken Go-Go Cage" and shake it up, sometimes in the company of Costello's own traveling go-go dancers, the lovely Scrimshaw Sisters. No surprise, given the audience's goading: Almost all spinners took a round in the cage instead of one at the bar.
By building so much spontaneity and audience participation into the show, Costello made a magical connection. He broke down the invisible "fourth wall" — the theatrical barrier of formalism and pretense which distances most performers from their audience. For once, we were all in on the joke.
Last evening's gig was his final U.S. performance of the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook," Costello announced. (Tonight, his Tower show will focus on his new album Blood and Chocolate.) I'd hope that Costello could find his way to doing a mess more Spinning Songbook concerts, though. They've got the power to make him an arena show topper, at long last.