It was a gimmick, no doubt about it. To kick off his six-city U.S. tour, Elvis Costello played five Los Angeles shows that included a bit of everything: oldies with the Attractions, new songs with the Attractions, solo performances, country and rock oldies with a group of session pros called the Confederates, duets with everybody from Tom Waits to Tom Petty, request segments — and a huge spinning wheel emblazoned with thirty-eight different song titles. Five consecutive nights, five completely different shows (or, in some subsequent cities, three nights, three different shows).
But the gimmick clearly had a liberating effect on Costello. In the past, his concerts were sometimes long, unwieldy affairs in which he tried to cover every aspect of a multifarious career; this tour freed him from the constraints of those all-encompassing shows and let him display one facet of himself each night. The only problem with the format was that it assumed that Costello's fans have unlimited pocketbooks: there was only one way to get the full picture, and that meant giving up five nights and $112.50.
Except for a few odd moments when he unleased some old Elvis Costello bile and railed against the Los Angeles Times for its coverage of the shows, Costello gave performances that were relaxed and funny, studded with moving and often revelatory moments. Many of those moments were wholly unexpected: a delirious cover of "Twist and Shout," performed with T Bone Burnett and the Confederates; duets with John Doe ("Wild Thing"), the Bangles ("If She Knew What She Wants") and Tom Petty ("American Girl"); versions of Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Ferry Cross the Mersey," the Hollies' "King Midas in Reverse" and the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink."
Appearing at three of the five shows, the Attractions played with as much force as they've ever shown. They ripped through invigorated renditions of oldies like "Lip Service" and "Red Shoes" and gripping songs from the new Blood and Chocolate LP, such as the naked ballad "I Want You," which was a fearsome centerpiece for two shows. On the other hand, the Confederates, who played the other two nights, were delightfully loose. With Costello, Burnett and James Burton on guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass, Jim Keltner on drums and Mitchell Froom on keyboards, the band mixed a few oldies in with tunes from King of America (including an especially affecting "Sleep of the Just").
And then there was the Spectacular Spinning Songbook. Part rock show, part game show, part free-for-all, the show dominated by this fifteen-foot wheel was a completely bizarre, completely wonderful evening in which the crowd was as important a part as, say, the studio audience on Let's Make a Deal. Contestants were pulled out of the audience by guest MCs John Doe and Tom Waits (who was born to be a barker), and after spinning the wheel, many of them got to spend time onstage — either in a go-go dancing cage or at a Naugahyde bar graciously equipped with a working television set and a big jar of Gatorade.
In that kind of atmosphere, it didn't matter that the long breaks between songs kept the Attractions — who were in especially fiery form — from establishing musical momentum. They didn't have to: the event had an unstoppable momentum all its own — and so did the entire five-night stand. It was, quite simply, a magnificent gimmick.