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Elvis Costello’s Spinning Songbook: World’s Greatest Game Show

Maximum Performance

When is a rock & roll concert like a game show and jazz? Answer: When it's part of Elvis Costello's "Revolver" tour, which revives his Spectacular Spinning Songbook wheel to further randomize the rocker's already ever-changing set lists. There are no brilliant mistakes, just brilliance, in these shows, which combine pure circus-barker hucksterism with the improvisational thrill that only comes when anything—or at least anything great—could happen. With some of the greatest serious songwriting of the last century and professional go-go dancers, too, this tour might just be the best thing since the invention of, you know, the first wheel.

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Too effusive, you say? Check out this video of Costello segueing from a cover of Prince's "Purple Rain" into "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding)"—accompanied not just by backing band the Imposters but five go-go dancers, three of whom are the Bangles—and maybe you'll see what the hullabaloo is about.

 

The spinning wheel and go-go cage were first introduced at a show Costello did with the Attractions a quarter-century ago at the Beverly Theatre, which was torn down shortly afterward for (you guessed it) a parking lot. "We thought that evening would go down in infamy," he told the crowd at the historic L.A. venue being visited this time, the Wiltern Theatre. "We thought that the city of Los Angeles would erect a statue to this here wheel. Instead of which they knocked that building down. Erased all memory of it! We're gonna do our best to keep the walls up—and take the roof off." 

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So far, no wrecking ball for the Wiltern. And with any luck, neither will any such ignoble fate meet the venues left on the tour, which include shows at New Jersey's Wellmont Theatre on May 18, Philadelphia's Tower Theatre on the 20th, and New York City's venerable Beacon the nights of May 22-24.

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The format remains much the same as it was in 1986, even though Tom Waits is not around to host this time. One element that was exactly duplicated on the second night of the Wiltern run was the Bangles showing up to sing backup vocals on "Next Time Round," which then was a brand-new song. Susanna Hoffs also took the lead vocal on "Tear Off Your Own Head (Doll Revolution)," a song that Costello gave the Bangles before he recorded it himself. The three lasses stuck around for plenty of Shindig-style shimmying, though only Vicki Peterson was quite brave enough to get in the cage where pro dancers had been earlier shaking it.

Other celebrities also made it onto the stage on night #2 at the Wiltern, though it wasn't clear whether Costello recognized them as such when they were brought up from the audience. Bird York, an actress (West Wing) and singer/songwriter of some local renown, came up to spin the wheel and had it land on "Watching the Detectives," then being escorted to the "society lounge"—where spinners were treated to cosmpolitans—before getting in the "hostage of fortune go-go cage." Costello joined her there (below) and then, in the best possible name-dropping fashion, spontaneously launched into a cover of the Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing." 

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There were even better-known celeb spinners plucked from the crowd—again, presumably not recognized by EC, assuming the whole thing was not rigged. An unrecognizably giddy Sandra Oh got up to spin the wheel with a significant other. And Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, was complimented by Costello for his set-appropriate "orange jacket," as well as his "very fine name" (probably because Elvis' own son is named Matthew). Weiner landed the wheel on "Clubland," which precipitated a lovely on-stage dance with Katya Valentina Valentine, the supposedly Russian stage hostess, who appeared to be about seven feet tall. (Video below.)

 

The wheel has 40 slots—34 with song titles (some of which change from city to city), six listing mysterious jackpot categories. "Girl" leads to a combination of songs with that word in the title that may or may not include "Party Girl," "Sulky Girl," "This Year's Girl," "Girls Talk," and the Beatles' "Girl" (minus John Lennon's air-sucking noises). The "Time" category results in some combination of "Clowntime is Over," "Strict Time," "Man Out of Time," and, gloriously, the Stones' "Out of Time."

 

The "I Can Sing a Rainbow" jackpot, it turns out, leads to a color-coded mini-set, which will almost certainly include "Red Shoes" and the aforementioned "Purple Rain" along with also, possibly, "Green Shirt" and "Blue Chair." Another jackpot allows for a succession of songs from a single classic album, although at the Wiltern, Costello first deliberately moved the wheel onto "Happy"—i.e., 1980's Get Happy!—and then, to the distress of some of us, either changed his mind or forgot about that self-directive during the ensuing patter.

There are a few other wild cards in the mix, like "Let Me Roll It," which is, indeed, a cover of the Wings song and not an instruction for Costello to re-spin the wheel himself. Similarly, Gram Parsons' "Wheels" (the one song played so far that sounded completely unrehearsed) was a strictly thematic choice.

Some other mysteries appear on the wheel, only to be solved at various points along the tour route. "Earthbound," unbeknown to all but a few, turns out to be the song Costello wrote for Wendy James in the '90s but never recorded himself—and not only is it a scorcher, but "the truest song I ever wrote," he claimed. "Detectives Vs. Hoover Factory" looked like it might be an intriguing mashup, but disappointingly, it just resulted in Costello taking a poll of which of those two songs the audience would rather hear—as if any crowd in a hundred years would cast its aural vote for "Hoover Factory." However, there was no disappointment when the wheel landed on "Pump It Up in 6/8 Time," which lived up to its title, with Costello putting down his guitar and joining Steve Nieve on keyboards for a version of the song so radically rearranged that witless ticketholders were still calling out requests for "Pump It Up" later in the show. This is performed as a medley—inexplicably, but pleasurably—with the classic Harlan Howard country song "Busted."

 

Thirty-second cover choices abound on this tour, appended to Costello classics. "Uncomplicated" incorporates a bit of "Shotgun." On the second night at the Wiltern, but not the first, "I Want You" included a bit of "I Say a Little Prayer for You." A solo "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," from his latest album, National Ransom, climaxed with Costello going off-mike to sing a touch of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," a cappella. "So Like Candy" transitioned into "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.""Alison" climaxed in a medley of "Tracks of My Tears," "Tears of a Clown," and "No More Tearstained Makeup" on the second night at the Wiltern, but a mixture of "The Wind Cries Mary," "Over the Rainbow," and West Side Story's "Somewhere" on the first. "Peace, Love and Understanding" ends with a bit of the Who's "The Kids are Alright." In these 2-hour-and-40-minute shows, you're not just getting a run through the Costello catalog but a one-man pop history lesson.

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And, speaking of "So Like Candy," there is no shortage of eye candy. Different pro go-do dancers have appeared at different gigs on the tour. (Since most of the band members are married, maybe it is a tactical decision not to have a single dancer traveling with the tour... since U2's the Edge did make their belly dancer his second wife, after all.) The set list section of Costello's website helpfully lists the dancers' purported stage names. The first night at the Wiltern featured a long-legged lass in tight, tight shorts and a fake fur vest, by the supposed name of "Miss Candy Mugglestone, direct from the 'The Wooky Hollow,' Belmont Rd., Liverpool" (at right). The second night had a far more diminutive, miniskirted gal, "Ms. Kitty 'Meow Muffin' of The Lusty Lady," who was less erotic and more smiley, even forming a heart shape with her hands when Costello covered Nick Lowe's "Heart of the City." But you didn't come here looking for reviews of the dancers, did you? (You did? For shame.)

The gal who chooses the song-spinners from the audience, Katya, also makes her way into the go-go cage at the end of every engagement, following warnings from Costello that a riot will break out and they will forfeit $100,000 in insurance if she does. "We've had a lot of problems with public order issues," he said. "As you know, the tour is underwritten by Donald Trump and Fox News... You can imagine that losing the 100 grand that we lost in Reno the opening night was a blow... If you see Katya edging toward the cage, warn me, because it's gonna be expensive. And believe me, it's coming out of your pockets. It's going to cost you a lot in reissues." Rim shot, please! 

Alas, the Spectacular Spinning Songbook is not making an appearance at all the shows Costello and the Imposters are doing this summer. But even at the non-"Revolver" shows, he's making a nod to the concept. His Las Vegas concert on May 13, for instance, was billed as a "No Revolver" show, but in lieu of the giant wheel, with a tip of the porkpie hat to Spinal Tap, he introduced a chance for audience members to take a crack at "the Spectacular 'Stonehenge' Songbook iPad Application." Which is as good a reminder as any that it was Steve Jobs, in fact, who reinvented the wheel.

Not that he's necessarily had a lot of requests from Dylan, Springsteen, or anyone else to rent out the wheel... but does anyone in rock & roll besides Costello have the combination of wisecracking dexterity, catalog depth, and improvisational prowess to pull off a gambit like this? We think not, but add your picks for who you'd like to see do a randomly audience-selected setlist, below...

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