The Spectator, May 30, 2012

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The Spectator

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Elvis Costello presents highs,
Lowes and Russell Crowe


Nic Fildes

One of the more surreal sights during Elvis Costello"s two-night Spectacular Spinning Songbook spell at the Royal Albert Hall came at the end of the first show. Costello sprang from stage left, having switched his visibly damp grey suit for a lurid gold jacket and faux-leopard-skin pillbox hat, and introduced Crowe to wail and growl away.

An execrable version of "Folsom Prison Blues" ensued, all but wiping out Costello"s previous anecdotes about the House of Cash and an unlikely Shepherd"s Bush session between the country music hero and the new age sneerer in the early 1980s.

It was 1986 that Costello last dragged out his Singing Songbook: a gigantic wheel that members of the audience are invited to spin to determine the songs that will be played. It was a concept, later nabbed by U2, which allowed Costello to don a top hat and sport a cane and play ringmaster.

His decision to resurrect the wheel comes at a time when his position as elder statesman of respectable music snobbery has hit a new apex courtesy of the Spectacle television show.

He thus dusted off the "decommissioned" wheel – on display at the "Hartlepool Museum of Show Business Machinery" so said the playful singer – and recalibrated a show featuring go-go dancers, strength-testers to unlock "songs of sneer," and wheel jackpots such as "Time" and "Numbers" that unlocked a medley of tunes on the theme.

The first night in London proved a hit and miss affair. The first spin of the wheel brought up "Stations of the Cross" from his last album, which brought silence from those members of the crowd bawling out for "Alison" and "Chelsea" and ignoring the concept of the show.

One cry of "Shipbuilding" during a brief acoustic set featuring "A Slow Drag With Josephine" and "Jimmy Standing in the Rain" provoked a weary retort of "I"ll play that in minute, son" from the spectacled one. He also rekindled his political leanings with a few Leveson quips and a resurrection of his vicious anti-Thatcher number "Tramp the Dirt Down" that was directed at various Tory targets including one "Boris Thatcher".

A sequence of well-dressed women, and one squat Australian man, took turns to go-go dance in the cage as the hits rolled around. Costello"s voice proved a little raspy on the high notes but a few rarities were rolled out for the diehards. The highlight was a venomous version of "I Want You," when he stepped away from the microphone and sang to the rafters unamplified.

The second night offered salvation for those left eating crow following the ill-advised guest spot. Costello tore up the first half an hour with "Lipstick Vogue," "You Belong to Me," "Mystery Dance" and "Radio, Radio," from his first two albums, played at a furious pace.

The first spin brought up the "Girl" jackpot, which ushered in "Party Girl" and "This Year"s Girl" – also old favourites – and then "Happy" triggered four songs from his Stax-influenced Get Happy, another early career highlight.

A fantastic blend of rarely heard classics ("Strict Time," "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror"); hits such as a dubby "Watching the Detectives" and snippets of well-known covers including "Out of Time" and "Day Tripper" all kept the go-go dancers on their toes. Even new material was well-received. A vampy version of "National Ransom," with menace missing from the studio recording, pushed the tale into more familiar "sneer" territory.

All that was left was for Costello to make guest spot amends by bringing pub rock royalty on stage in the form of Nick Lowe. A warm version of "Poisoned Rose" was a revelation and Lowe took his place centre stage for "Peace, Love and Understanding," which he penned in the 70s.

Steve Nieve took to the Albert Hall organ and drummer Pete Thomas"s daughter, Tennessee, drummed on a set placed directly behind her father for the encore to create a strange optical illusion.

The lesson had been learned: Lowe, not Crowe.

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The Spectator, May 30, 2012


Nic Fildes reviews Elvis Costello & The Imposters with guests Russell Crowe, Nick Lowe, Glenn Tilbrook, BibleCode Sundays, Martin Belmont and Tennessee Thomas, Wednesday, May 23 and Thursday, May 24, Royal Albert Hall, London, England.


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