TORONTO -- If ever there was a musician who didn’t need gimmicks it’s Elvis Costello.
A highly respected British singer-songwriter-music historian-talk show host - the list goes on and on - the 56-year-old Costello is also prolific in his output, most recently releasing last fall’s National Ransom produced by T-Bone Burnett.
So when he arrived at the Sony Centre For the Performing Arts on Thursday night with the “spectacular spinning songbook,” - a giant, brightly coloured wheel trimmed in lights with about 40 tunes on it spanning his 30-year-plus career plus some covers with a spin by an audience member helping to determine the evening’s song selections - and a go-go cage decked out in beads and lights, both elements held great promise in terms of high fun factor.
And while a professional female go-go dancer was a hip-shaking wonder to behold in her sequined mini-dress and hot pink patent leather high heeled boots and the song wheel had its moments too - it first harkens back to a 1986 trek by Costello - after a while all you really wanted was the man himself.
Simply put, Costello was on fire - sweating up a storm and pouring his heart and soul into every song - when it was just him on his own or backed by the Imposters - drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Davey Faragher.
Still, his intentions were good.
You got the sense that the smart suit-and-tie wearing Costello just wanted to have some fun as he opened with I Hope You’re Happy Now, Heart Of The City, Mystery Dance, Uncomplicated and Radio Radio before trading his natty fedora for a top hat and a cane and pulling the first audience member out of the crowd to spin the wheel with help from a female audience wrangler - she was no Carole Merrill - who also danced too.
It felt like part game show, part lounge act, part vaudevillian revue, but the funny thing was that when mere mortals joined Costello on stage - each wheel spinner or spinners were invited to sip wine in what he called The Society Lounge or give the go-go cage a try - their ordinariness detracted from his supreme cool.
Whether he realizes it or not, he is cool, talented, charming and often quite sexy, whether he’s crooning a ballad or rocking out intensely.
The only time the combination of entertainer and audience really gelled was when about 30 people - was that Toronto film-maker Bruce MacDonald in a cowboy hat busting some moves ? - ran up and joined Costello onstage to dance during (What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding and I Don’t Want To Got To Chelsea as the marathon two-and-a-half-hour show drew to a close.
Still, song spins delivered such highlights as Everyday I Write The Book, I Want You, Party Girl, Girls Talk, and a cover of The Beatles’ Girl while Accidents Will Happen, Alison which segued into Smokey Robinson’s Tracks Of My Tears, Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Somewhere, Waiting For The End Of The World, Pump It Up which segued into Prince’s Purple Rain, and National Ransom songs like Stations Of The Cross, and A Slow Drag With Josephine happened courtesy of Costello himself.
He is a musical treasure and those of us willing to admit it, want only him alone or with his band on stage without any distractions.