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