Randy Lewis: May 12th 2011
Long before the word “interactive” became an entertainment-industry mantra, Elvis Costello was there with his fabled "Spinning Songbook."
A quarter century after he first cooked up the idea that exponentially amped up the practice of taking requests from the audience, Costello and his band the Imposters have resurrected the concept for a new generation, although the sold-out crowd on hand Wednesday for the first of two nights at the Wiltern Theatre clearly included a good number of those who’d been following him since his first go-round.
The new Revolver tour sees music as a thing of joy -- something of a revolutionary statement in and of itself in these days, when another of big buzzwords in the music business is monetization. This isn’t the garden-variety promotional tour designed primarily to build familiarity with -- and sales of -- an artist’s latest product, although he did manage to cleverly work in a couple of numbers from his most recent release, “National Ransom,” during an extended round of encores after a 2½-hour set.
Rather, Costello, keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist-vocalist Davey Farragher and drummer Pete Thomas played like guests of honor at the most invigorating kind of living room party where attendees challenge one another in a combination of “Name That Tune” and “Top That!”
The Spinning Songbook wheel itself lends an additional measure of festiveness, allowing the always-engaging Costello to fully inhabit his alter ego as a raconteur and master of ceremonies par excellence, something he showcased regularly on his Sundance cable channel series “Spectacle.”
Without fanfare, Costello and the band strode onstage Wednesday and let loose an initial four-song volley that began with “I Hope You’re Happy Now” from 1986’s “Blood & Chocolate,” segued directly into “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” and crested into his freshman and sophomore album songs, “Mystery Dance” and “Radio Radio,” the latter maybe a little too fast and furious for its own good.
But with the take-no-prisoners ambiance established, the host traded his porkpie hat for a dapper silk top hat and quickly obliterated anything resembling a fourth-wall between performer and audience.
A comely assistant helped choose fans to come onstage and spin the 10- to 12-foot-in-diameter brightly colored wheel with 32 song titles representing Costello classics (“Alison,” “Pump It Up,” “Veronica”) to esoteric (“Flutter & Wow,” “Monkey to Man,” “Stella Hurt”) to a smattering of covers (Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It,” Lennon-McCartney’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” -- do we detect a theme here?).
The wheel also held eight purple “bonus” strips with words such as “Happy,” “Time,” “Girl” and “Napoleon Solo,” the latter, Costello explained when it came up midway into the show, a license for him to choose anything he felt like playing at the moment. (At that moment it was “Leave My Kitten Alone,” a celebrated outtake most famously associated with -- surprise! -- the Beatles.) When the wheel later landed on “Time,” he told the audience it served as a theme for which he’d come up with as many songs mentioning “time” as he could. That yielded a playful set-within-the-set that included “Clown Time Is Over,” “Next Time 'Round,” the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” and back to his own “Man Out of Time.”
Costello asked the first wheel spinner which song she most hoped to hear (“I Want You,” she said; “I think that’s a song title,” Costello drolly replied and then let it rip. It landed on “Everyday I Write the Book,” which the band gamely served up as the fan looked on from a stool at a bar in the “Society Lounge” positioned in front of Nieve’s bank of keyboards, a cool drink in her hand supplied by Costello’s lovely assistant. Other selectees took advantage of the “Hostage to Fortune Go-Go Cage” at Costello’s right, flashing their footwork while the band pounded away nearby.
And on it went. The random element certainly helped keep the musicians on their toes and prevented the possibilities of a rote performance from slavish adherence to a set list.
Costello’s his own best friend in that regard, having written himself a stockpile of hundreds of songs over the last 35 years, a remarkably deep storehouse of some of the most pointed, literate and finely crafted songs of the rock era. When he turned near the end to a solo performance of the "National Ransom" song "A Slow Drag With Josephine,"a dazzling marriage of melody, words, rhymes, ideas and acoustic guitar finger-picking, he left no doubt that he’s evolved into a writer every bit the master of song craft as anyone who ever came out of Tin Pan Alley.
In the end, it created an evening that went well beyond merely interactive, the kind of uniquely invigorating experience that warrants a buzzword all its own: inspiring.