Review: Elvis Costello's spontaneous 'Spinning Songbook'
Hand it to Elvis Costello: With his delightfully zany “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” conceit, the indefatigable British singer and songwriter has created a musical game show in which he not only gets to host but also cheat, and the audience often hopes he’ll do so.
On Tuesday, as he rolled the Spinning Songbook back into the Wiltern, wrapping up the Revolver Tour that had been at the same venue 11 months ago, Costello again brought audience members up to the stage throughout the two hour and 20 minute show to spin the big wheel.
The spinning wheel is a device he first introduced in 1986, and also used at a Wiltern show that year. On that wheel are 40 slots, mostly with names of songs, but with a few wild-card entries such as “Cash,” which allowed him to play a Johnny Cash tune of his choosing (“Cry, Cry, Cry”), and also the word “Happy,” which unleashed a handful of songs from his 1979 album “Get Happy” when it surfaced on another fan’s spin. (Nobody ever got the wheel to stop in the slot labeled “Imperial Chocolate,” which presumably would have led to a set from the “Imperial Bedroom” and “Blood & Chocolate” albums.)
There were a couple of times, however, when Costello slyly tipped the wheel after it stopped moving, bumping it forward or back to serve up a different song. For instance, toward the end of the evening, a woman who said her name was Chelsea gave it a spin, and Costello helped nudge it toward the “Chelsea” slot that naturally opened the door for him and the Imposters to rip into 1978’s “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea.”
He also nudged the wheel over to “No Particular Place to Go,” so he could play his radical revisioning of Chuck Berry’s rock classic as a waltz, but also so he could deliver a priceless anecdote from his role in PEN New England’s first award for song lyrics of literary excellence event in Boston. The group bestowed the honor on Berry and Leonard Cohen, and in his best impression of Cohen’s sub-basement bass voice, Costello quoted the Canadian poet-singer and songwriter’s confession at the proceedings earlier this year at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum that “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry.”
The Spinning Songbook gimmick was expanded this time around with an additional carny trick: “The Hammer of Songs,” in which one fan was given a large mallet to attempt to ring a bell at the top of a board marked with different categories, including “Songs of Sneer” and “The Hits of Tomorrow” (“songs so great,” Costello explained, “I haven’t even written them yet.”) In this case, the fan succeeded in ringing the bell, for which she won the right to choose any song title on the wheel.
It was all in good fun during an evening that celebrated spontaneity over the tightly programmed concert rituals we’ve become accustomed to over the years. The only downsides of an otherwise exceptionally upbeat and lively show were a sound mix that slowly progressed from congealed mess to annoyingly muted, and a curiously reluctant guest appearance during the final encore by Costello’s wife, jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, who added Ramsey Lewis-ish chord flourishes during “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding”), then did her best to refuse to join her husband and his mates for the final bow.
Vicki and Debbie Peterson, the two members of the Bangles who showed up to sing harmony on that tune, seemed to have a much easier time slipping into the spirit of the proceedings.
The Spinning Songbook is a perfect device for a musician and his band who are essentially human jukeboxes, and who prize the inspired musical moment over the programmed emotional response.
Costello has had the spinning wheel around for years now, but it makes for a great show. Fans can always hope that what goes around might come around once more.
-- Randy Lewis
Top photo of Elvis Costello during his 2011 "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" performance at the Wiltern Theatre. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.
Second photo: Chuck Berry and Elvis Costello in February at PEN New England's award for song lyrics of literary excellence in Boston. Credit: Josh Reynolds / Associated Press.