Richard Houghton: 15th June, 2013.
Elvis Costello brought his Spinning Songbook tour to the North West with performances in Blackpool and Manchester.
A measure of the powers of Costello and his backing band the Imposters is that they played over 25 songs each night and yet fewer than a dozen songs were performed on both. The reason? The spinning songbook chooses much of the set.
The spinning songbook is a large and garishly coloured wheel divided into small slices on which are scribed various Costello favourites and which sits stage left. Stage right is a small bar and an energetic and spangly costumed go-go dancer.
This is not your average rock gig. After an opening salvo from the band, Costello swaps his fedora for a top hat and assumes the persona of Napoleon Dynamite (Lord Napoleon in Manchester) inviting members of the audience up on stage to spin the wheel. He cracks the jokes while they see whether a song title or a theme such as Love (giving the band some leeway to choose what they might perform) is where the wheel stops. So we get Riot Act as the fourth number in Blackpool and Tokyo Storm Warning in Manchester.
But the wheel doesn't make all the choices. In Blackpool a young woman brought on stage says that her favourite song isn't displayed and Elvis, guessing her musical tastes based on her age, cracks that they can't play a Rhianna song, 'well, only one or two'. But she wants Gram Parsons' How Much I Lied and, whilst it might not have been rehearsed beforehand, the band duly oblige. In Manchester, a 50 year old celebrating his birthday not only gets Happy Birthday sung by the audience and Costello but his request for Battered Old Bird, another song not on the wheel and not rehearsed.
The Blackpool highlight is the anti Thatcher song Tramp The Dirt Down, delivered with passion as Costello links recollections of his father's death to that of the late prime minister. His musician father used to play the working men's clubs 'when there were still working men in the north'. The collective lump in the throat of the audience was a moment of raw emotion.
In Manchester, the stand out section of the show was a rip roaring run through the back catalogue with Oliver's Army, I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea, Pump It Up, The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes, Mystery Dance, Radio Radio and What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding fired off one after another in a breathtaking encore that left the audience baying for more.
The Spinning Songbook tour is evidence that one of Britain's finest songwriters and performers is on top of his game. Whether it's romantically serenading the audience with Charles Aznavour's She or political understatement with Shipbuilding, Costello and his band provide two and a half hours of solid entertainment. Long may the spinning songbook continue to spin.