Elvis Costello's wheel of fortunate songs makes for thrilling show

Chicago Tribune: Bob Gendron: May 16th 2011

Add tacky game-show host to the list of Elvis Costello's myriad guises. It's just one of the roles he played Sunday at a nearly sold-out Chicago Theatre, where a giant revolving wheel and audience interaction guided a marathon 140-minute concert loaded with surprise and urgency. Costello debuted the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" 25 years ago but hasn't used the contraption since. Its return made for inspired entertainment and a welcome revisitation of several of the artist's great albeit seldom-aired album tracks.

Listing the names of dozens of Costello tunes as well as a few categories, the multi-color wheel anchored a kitschy display that included a go-go dancer platform and dumpy cocktail lounge. Plucked out of the crowd by assistants and invited onstage by Costello—embracing his carnival-barker persona by talking like a snake-oil huckster—fans spun the wheel to determine what song would come next. On occasion, Costello manipulated the stopping point. But by and large, he and the Imposters abided by chance.

While it yielded unscripted thrills, the random approach risked thwarting momentum. Yet aside from slogging through a low-key treatment of "The Element Within Her," the band maintained a cohesive flow. Indeed, the quartet established a feisty tone during a set-opening flurry, racing through five fast-paced songs ("Uncomplicated," "Mystery Dance" included) inside of 16 minutes, ripping into each selection with breathless speed and nervous energy. Agitated, aggressive and amplified, the performance contrasted with Costello's acoustic solo appearance last December at the same venue, during which he focused on exploring various genres. Not tonight.With Steve Nieve dialing up everything from sci-fi sound effects to soulful textures on keyboard, Hammond organ and grand piano, and a fist-tight rhythm section providing solid footing, Costello got reacquainted with his harder rock and harmonic pop sides. He buried disappointment amidst big hooks ("Next Time Round"), filtered fuzz-drenched reverb through pounding beats ("Strict Time") and dealt with the detritus of ruined relationships via crescendos that straddled celebration and sadness ("Rocking Horse Road").

Costello also extended bridges and refrains, giving him license to flirt with distorted avant-garde solos that would've been at home in New York's late 70s no-wave scene. Such spontaneous rearrangements and changes often preceded thematic covers ranging from The Band's "This Wheel's On Fire" to the Rolling Stones'"Out of Time" to Prince's "Purple Rain." Having added perspective to his original songs, the seamless transitions and interpretive snippets should convince Costello to permanently drop setlists from his repertoire.