When Elvis Costello finally sells out, quits working as a tireless singer, songwriter and music scholar, and takes over Celine Dion's gig in Las Vegas, he'll have a great stage show to fall back on.
Costello and his backing band of nearly ten years, the Imposters, brought its "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" tour to the Pageant last night, and its garish, over-the-top kitsch provided an alternate entry into Costello's peerless catalogue. Rather than write a setlist the old-fashioned way, Costello has been allowing his fans to come to the stage, spin a red-and-yellow game-show wheel with song titles printed on its sections and let the hits fall where they may. Oh, and after the contestants spin the wheel, they can have a cocktail in the "Society Lounge" or take a turn in the "Hostage of Fortune" go-go cage. This is how brilliant songwriters cope with middle age, right? Pat Sajak impersonations and a little sexy swiveling? It's a testament to Costello's good-hearted showmanship and tongue-in-cheek demeanor that the show, with its self-knowing hokeyness, never detracted from the breadth and brilliance of Costello's songs.
Of course, it takes supreme confidence and good editing to leave your setlist in the hands of fate, so Costello wisely pruned his 34 years of songwriting into about 40 selections, from his best-known hits to his most obscure B-sides, album tracks and random covers. A lesser performer would stack the deck with easy ones; Costello decided to give the people what they wanted while keeping a firm hand on the wheel. He sang a snippet of The Wizard of Oz's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" last night, if only to remind us that there's always someone behind the curtain, winding gears and turning a mere mortal into something larger than life.
The concept of the Spinning Songbook was born 25 years ago on the Blood & Chocolate tour, so it was fitting that Costello and his Imposters -- Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete Thomas on drums, and Davey Faragher on bass -- took the stage with a blistering "I Hope You're Happy Now" from that album. Looking especially trim and dapper in a conservative gray suit and stylish straw hat, Costello is older and wiser than he was when he put that vitriol to tape in 1986, but somehow his venom never seems phoned-in or insincere. As original members of the Attractions, both Nieve and Thomas have been with Costello off and on since 1977, and their pedigree was on display with Nieve's endlessly inventive organ solos and Thomas' propulsion of the set's momentum. The pace continued to pick up steam with a cover of Nick Lowe's "Heart of the City," a nod to Costello's producer, collaborator and long-time friend.
The hat-tip to Lowe was a subtle one, and it was quickly overshadowed by the night's special guest: Pearl Jam majordomo (and recent ukulele huckster) Eddie Vedder joined the band for a bashing take on the Who's "Substitute." (Vedder played last night at the Fox Theatre. Eagle-eyed fans will note that he sported a Who 1982 tour shirt under his denim vest; most everyone else noticed that his fervent two-handed grip on the mic proves that old grunge dies hard.)
Vedder's brief surprise appearance also signaled the start of the night's proceedings. On his way off the stage, Elvis asked Eddie to spin the great wheel and let fate take its course in charting the night's set list. It landed on one of the wheel's many curiosities: "Pump It Up in 6/8." This time the band ignored the new time signature and plowed ahead in trusty old 4/4, keeping with the brash, bloody pace of the set's opening salvo.
It was here that Costello went into full game-show-host mode. Assuming the nom du rock of Napoleon Dynamite (a moniker he created long before a certain cult film made it famous), Elvis sported a cheap top hat, bejeweled cane and benevolent smirk to welcome contestants to the stage and have a spin of the wheel. As the band played a vamp on (appropriately enough) Blood Sweat & Tears' "Spinning Wheel," a young woman named Erin gave it a spin and landed on "Human Hands," a deep cut from 1982's masterful Imperial Bedroom. Without a blink, Costello and Co. launched into the song's pianistic flash and herky ska upticks. It's a minor song in an overstuffed catalogue, but it's nice the Elvis hasn't forgotten his stepchildren along the way, and he performed it with all the care of one of his marquee tunes.
Along with song titles on the McDonald's-esque red-and-yellow placards, Costello placed a few purple "jackpot" selections on the wheel as well. These were either vague or hard to parse from first glance, but they allowed the band to string a medley of related songs together. The first jackpot landed on one called "I Can Sing a Rainbow," which touched on some of Costello's more, ahem, "colorful" songs. "Green Shirt" was first and it landed perfectly; Thomas kept military time and Nieve nailed the minimalist flourishes while Costello, free from his guitar, worked the stage. Next came "Blue Chair," "Red Shoes," and an impassioned section of "Purple Rain." Is it too soon to request that Prince be a guest on Costello's cable interview show Spectacle?
The Spinning Songbook provided a ballast for the night's set, but Costello was far from shackled to his twelve-foot circular taskmaster. After a young couple named Joe and Alison spun the wheel to "The Long Honeymoon" and, of course, "Alison" (with some help from the host), Costello and the Imposters did a fine take on his best-known song before embarking on a five-song set that veered from the established format: "Mystery Dance," "Radio Radio" and the Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing" all followed in machine-gun succession. Who can argue with such a break in decorum? For what it's worth, he returned to the tango-laced "Honeymoon" later in the set, after he had exorcised those particular demons.
And that's how Costello works. He'll give you the hits -- thanks to either fortuitous spins or his own maneuvering, most of his best-known songs were played last night -- but he'd rather take you to school with a guided tour of his own bottomless scholarship. He had a chance to do that with "This Wheel's On Fire," a song written by Bob Dylan and the Band's Rick Danko that appeared on Music From Big Pink. He used the roiling melody from his own "River in Reverse" to cast the song in a more ominous light, and by tacking on verses from Costello collaborator Allen Toussaint's "On Your Way Down" and Brook Benton's soul classic "I'll Take Care of You," the song became a holding pen for any manner of American soul music.
After a brief respite, the band returned to encore with This Year's Model's "Lipstick Vogue," the most scathing track on an album brimming with them. A few more curated "jackpot" spins yielded songs with "Girl" and "Time" in the title (including a fine take on the Rolling Stones' "Out of Time," with Steve Nieve nailing the marimba solo on his old, trusty Vox Continental combo organ). One last spin proved that providence really did have a hand in last night's set -- the needle fell on "(What's So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding," a standard set-closer. So fate won out and closed the show in a familiar way, but not after nearly three hours of a topsy-turvy, common-sense-be-damned approach to something as rote and routine as a rock & roll concert.
As Costello and his crew left the stage, drummer Pete Thomas gave an errant spin of the wheel as the house lights came on. It landed on "I Want You," almost certainly Costello's darkest song of violent lust and barely contained sexual rage. Fitting, then, that after a night of excess, the wheel leaves us with a message about insatiable desire. The crowd certainly would have stuck around for one more song, or twenty, but Costello understands that showbiz adage: Always leaving them wanting more.