Elvis Costello has been delivering high-drama live performances since before you were born. In 1977, he famously brought Saturday Night Live to a crashing halt when he aborted a performance of "Less Than Zero" and redirected the band into a ferocious "Radio Radio." In 1981, he infamously opened shows on the Trust tour with "Shot with His Own Gun," a deadly serious solo piano dirge with lyrics invoking premature ejaculation and metaphorical suicide. And throughout his 35-year career, he's expertly deployed the power of killer bands, from the awesomely confrontational Attractions (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas) to his latest band of Imposters (same as above, only with Davey Faragher replacing Thomas on bass).
Compared with the provocations cited above, the 2012 Revolver Tour is positively crowd-pleasing, with Costello welcoming back to the stage his Spectacular Spinning Songbook, the Wheel of Fortune–style contraption he first took on tour in 1986, after the rejuvenating double-whammy of King of America and Blood & Chocolate. Tricked out with song titles spanning Costello's career, the song wheel is spun by lucky audience members, with the band banging out whatever song the wheel reveals. If live-action Costello Song Roulette isn't gimmick enough for you, the stage also holds a go-go dancer shimmying in a fur-lined cage.
But dismissing anything drawing on the Elvis Costello songbook as only gimmick is stupid. Any honest survey of the Costello oeuvre reveals a half-dozen masterworks and good, interesting, sometimes difficult music in every era (though his 1977–1982 run is rightly his defining achievement, and his explorations in torch singing his nadir). Any serious Costello fan will be thrilled by what the 2012 Spectacular Spinning Songbook has on offer: "Alison," "Accidents Will Happen," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," "Clubland," "New Lace Sleeves" (!), "Beyond Belief" (!!), "Pills and Soap," "I Want You," "God's Comic"... In a nod to the man's ascension to elder statesman of 20th-century music, the wheel also includes key covers: the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Wheels," the Who's "Substitute," the Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing."
But the ultimate highlights of the wheel are the jackpots, which involve small collections of songs sharing a theme, with rotating themes and song choices making no two Spinning Songbook shows the same. A sampler:
The "Happy" Jackpot
The winner of this jackpot will be serenaded with three songs drawn from Get Happy!!, Costello's 20-song new wave/R&B explosion of 1980. Recurring components: "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," "High Fidelity," and "Secondary Modern." (Meanwhile, Get Happy!!'s "Black and White World" has a stand-alone spot on the wheel, as does Blood & Chocolates "I Hope You're Happy Now.")
The "Time" Jackpot
A jackpot of songs invoking the passage of time. Recurring/alternating components: Trust's "Strict Time," Get Happy!!'s "Clowntime Is Over," the Rolling Stones' "Out of Time," and Imperial Bedroom's titanic "Man Out of Time," which sometimes segues into Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue." Swoon.
The "Girls" Jackpot
Self-explanatory. Recurring components: 1978's classic "This Year's Girl," 1980's underworshipped "Girls Talk," and "Sulky Girl" from 1994's Brutal Youth, an album that people pretended was a return to form at the time but is no fun at all to listen to in the 21st century.
The "King's Ransom" Jackpot
This rootsy jackpot draws on two albums Costello made with producer T Bone Burnett: 1986's King of America (credited at the time to the Costello Show) and 2010's National Ransom (Costello's first release on Starbucks' Hear Music). Recurring components: "Brilliant Mistake," "Indoor Fireworks," and "American Without Tears" from King of America; "The Spell That You Cast," "Stations of the Cross," and the title track of "National Ransom."
The "I Can Sing a Rainbow" Jackpot
The just-what-it-says-on-the-tin jackpot, typically featuring Armed Forces' "Green Shirt," My Aim Is True's "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," and — glory be! — Prince's "Purple Rain."
Other, non-jackpot oddities appearing on the Spectacular Spinning Songbook: Detectives vs. Hoover Factory, in which the legendary "Watching the Detectives" is pitted against lovable B-side "Hoover Factory," with the audience deciding which song is played (spoiler alert: "Detectives" always wins); "Pump It Up in 6/8" (the This Year's Model highlight played in luxurious 6/8 time); and Ray Charles' "What'd I Say?", a medley/mashup of Costello's notorious drunken proclamation of the late '70s with the man's own R&B classic. This last one is a lie. All others are guessed at from set lists posted on Costello's site and in reviews. Results may vary. Have fun. recommended