Round and round

Can we just crown Elvis Costello the Greatest Entertainer of His Generation and be done with it?

Punk Elvis, terrorizing Saturday Night Live. Brill Building/Motown Elvis, effortlessly reeling off pop and R&B songs through the Armed Forces/Taking Liberties/Get Happy!!!/Trust years. Country-blues Elvis, riding the mystery train from Nashville to Graceland to Memphis (Almost Blue, King of America, Kojak Variety, The Delivery Man). New Orleans Elvis (Spike, The River in Reverse). Classical Elvis (The Juliet Letters, Il Sogno). Beatles Elvis (Imperial  Bedroom). Rock and roll Elvis (Blood and Chocolate, Brutal Youth, When I Was Cruel). Musicologist/effervescent TV Host Elvis (Sundance Channel’s “Spectacle”). Tin Pan Alley Elvis (National Ransom). And through it all, Wordsmith Elvis, snarly, pithy, sly, clever, gorgeous, peerless.

With his Spinning Songbook tour, Costello has found a singular way to contain, and showcase, his multitude of musical selves. Take one huge carnival Wheel of Fortune, slot it with songs spanning 30+ years of Costellodom, adopt the persona of a cheesy music hall emcee, let audience members spin the wheel and while the song is played, invite them to linger on bar stools at the onstage cocktail lounge or take a turn dancing in the go-go cage.

I was lucky enough to witness the Spinning Songbook show in its first incarnation, in 1986. He revisited the concept last year and, after a few months’ hiatus, he’s back on the road with his traveling carnival. The Spinning Songbook hit San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on April 15, and, of the four Songbook shows I’ve caught since 1986, it was by far the best, in pacing and energy level  — and one of the best of any Elvis show, from any period, I’ve ever seen.

Nearly three hours, folks. So many songs I lost count. It started with Costello and his indefatigable Imposters (keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher) blasting through an opening volley of “Lipstick Vogue” and “Watching the Detectives,” while a spangles-and-fishnet-clad go-go dancer shimmied in the cage. Costello then donned a top hat and stalked through the audience looking for lucky victims. He emerged with two young women in tow, whom he led to the wheel, claiming that he chose them because they were wearing purple, “the Papal color … and I’m feeling very holy.”  And we were off to the races.

The first spin yielded the rocker “Turpentine” from Momofuku, and a cryptic “Big Boo Little Hoo” card, which turned out to be a medley of crying songs:  The rarity “Big Tears” (yay!) and the ballads “Town Cryer” and “Little Triggers.”  On “Big Tears,” Guitar God Elvis ripped off the first of many lacerating solos, while Crooner Elvis was in fine nuanced, dusky voice on the two ballads, as well as on the other slow-burners that would come up through the night (“The Poisoned Rose,” the Randy Newman-penned “I’ve Been Wrong Before,” George Jones’ “A Good Year for the Roses”).  Subsequent spins (with Costello aided by his statuesque assistant “Katya Valentina Valentine”) turned up songs both well-loved (“Everyday I Write the Book,” “High Fidelity”) and under-appreciated (“Episode of Blonde”, “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”). There were also wild cards and jackpots, which were basically an excuse for Elvis to delve into multiple tracks along the same theme (like the “Time” slot), or to play whatever the hell he wanted, from “Mystery Dance” to “Uncomplicated” to a jubilant cover of the Beatles’ “Please Please Me.”

The audience participation format is a risk. But for the most part, the San Francisco contingent was more excited than inebriated. Well, except for the blonde chick who crashed the stage uninvited and proceeded to make an air-guitar-windmilling, Irish step-dancing ass of herself at length.

But, back to Costello. The man did not want to stop playing. By my dizzy estimate, the encores alone went on for 45 minutes. By the final two songs, his customary when-in-SF Grateful Dead cover (“Ramble On Rose”) and, of  course, “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,”  Costello and the Imposters were drenched in sweat and we were ecstatically go-go dancing in the aisles. That’s entertainment.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2012

4 thoughts on “Round and round

  1. Richard Cobeen July 24, 2013 / 1:06 am

    Catching up to many of these older posts and wanted to mention that my wife got to spin the wheel at the Warfield during the first incarnation in 1986. Sadly, we have forgotten what song she spun, but when Huey Lewis (he was the host) asked what song she wanted she replied, “Uncomplicated,” the lead song off his current album at the time. Elvis responded with a pump of his fist, as I’m sure she was the first person to choose a new song instead of an older classic. And then she danced in the go-go cage. A great night.

    And, a quick second story brought forward from your ’78 Springsteen post. When I saw Bruce for the first time at Winterland (I know, I’ve mentioned this in another comment), I was 16 and drove down from a small town in Northern California. I had barely been to any real rock shows and Darkness was my talisman during the summer and fall of that year. My friend and I were waiting in line, right outside the side door, and we could hear the band practicing for the show. They went through the first two verses of Badlands over and over so, as I learned later, Bruce could check the sound throughout the hall. Listening to a song that I thought held all the secrets to life repeated so many times built up a charge and exaltation that didn’t start to dissipate until we were on 80 almost back to Fairfield. It’s not a signed backstage pass, but it was a life defining moment.

    • Joyce Millman July 24, 2013 / 10:22 am

      Great stories, both! So were you at the Spinning Songbook at the Warfield or Fox this time around? Re: Bruce, as much as I treasure that pass, it was the sheer exaltation, as you rightly call it, of hearing that album come to life in 1978 that I cherish most. Life defining, yes!

      • Richard Cobeen July 24, 2013 / 11:40 am

        I’ll admit to having trouble listening to Elvis at this point. I haven’t truly enjoyed one of his albums for almost a quarter of a century, even though I was still seeing him up to a decade ago. It’s been disappointing after such fandom (saw all three shows at the Warfield in 1986). I still haven’t forgiven my sister for crapping out when we had tickets for Costello/Rockpile/Mink DeVille earlier in 1978 and I was 15 and couldn’t get down to see the show. Also saw the wheel in San Jose when he and Nick Lowe played solo. Costello’s current over-singing just becomes too much for me. The new single out with the Roots does give me hope though.

      • Joyce Millman July 24, 2013 / 1:35 pm

        Ah, well. I haven’t always been on board with some of his diversions, but I think his recent stuff has been very strong. “National Ransom” is his best since “Brutal Youth” and one of my faves of his, ever. Wasn’t bowled over by the Roots track, but need more listens …

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