1986 was a year of refreshment for Elvis Costello. After an extended period of indifferent work further diluted by the off-puttingly glossy production of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, he got back on track with two great albums. King of America found him at his most sophisticated; Blood & Chocolate at his hungriest.
In support of his latest triumphs, Elvis burnt up the road with a brilliant new gimmick. Adopting the sardonically sleazy persona of a game show host, he invited fans on stage to twirl his "Spectacular Spinning Songbook," a giant wheel-of-fortune featuring 40 hits, oddities, and categories dictating the next number he and the Attractions would rip-snort their way through.
25 years later he's pulled the wheel and his charmingly smarmy alter ego, Napoleon Dynamite, out of storage to give fans another chance to win big. Last night Elvis and the Imposters took their spectacle to New York City's Beacon Theater.
The show was a colorful, cartoony free-for-all in which kids, a few minor-celebrity guests (T-Bone Burnett, Willie Garson, most fondly remembered by this writer for his bit part as Heavy Metal Roadie on Twin Peaks), and a drunken wannabe stripper roamed the stage like coyotes. Toss in a couple of Go-Go dancers and all the action could be a bit distracting.
But this is a spectacle, and the show certainly delivered on that level, even if the wheel was a big of a shaggy-dog prop. More often than not, Elvis would cheat by manipulating the wheel to his preferred song, most likely to give preference to punter-pleasers like "Oliver's Army" rather than deep cuts like "Country Darkness."
No matter. Groovy surprises, such as covers of Prince's "Purple Rain," Nick Lowe's "Heart of the City," and The Stones' "Out of Time," elevated the show beyond a rote recital of greatest hits.
The band sounded great; particularly after drummer Pete Thomas's daughter Tennessee joined him behind the kit. Playing in super-human synchronization, the daddy/daughter team turned stuff like "Turpentine" and "Peace, Love, and Understanding" into sonic avalanches.
A rare appearance by Elvis's brother, Ronan MacManus, and a small Irish ensemble called Bible Code Sundays that joined him on "American Without Tears" and "Little Palaces" was another familial treat that lent a bit of necessary intimacy to one really big show.