When I think of Elvis Costello I often think of the serious musician that’s spent his career exploring different genres, working with disparate artists, and writing and covering an incredible catalog of songs. I tend to forget about the personality and humor that he’s not only revealed through lyrics, but as temporary host of “Late Night with David Letterman” (when Dave was having heart surgery) and on his Sundance channel talk show “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…” He brought that and more, donning the jokey character of Napoleon Dynamite as game show host of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour, which made a stop at Belk Theater Saturday, July 16.
The stage set up (pictured from afar above) was part Austin Powers, part `60s game show with a giant old TV as backdrop, a beaded cage for dancing, a small bar (called the Society Lounge), and the colorful two story wheel that was over twice as tall as the band. The five-song intro seemed kind of chaotic with the lights, the lithe dancer (Dixie Le Fontaine) in white boots and a sequin mini dress shimmying in the cage, and Costello & the Imposters blasting punkily through “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” “Heart of the City,” “Mystery Dance,” “Uncomplicated,” and “Radio Radio.” The shaky, raw sound, which wasn’t quite tweaked at that point, added to that fast, loose and loud feel and the vintage stage set. The song selection and arrangements were a reminder how rooted in that era of rock n’ roll much of Costello’s work is.
Throughout the night Costello invited members of the crowd on stage to spin the wheel, which featured over forty songs. The first spin landed on “God Give Me Strength,” which got Costello crooning out in the crowd where he grabbed the next two “contestants,” a presumably mother/daughter team from Cincinnati. His voice isn’t the kind sullied by age. The strength of those pipes (pardon the pun) was even more evident during that slow, torchy number.
A stunning statuesque hostess wearing a dress much like Marilyn Monroe’s famous white one combed the crowd for spinners then nudged them into the cage to groove as the Imposters played their selections (the entire set list is available at Costello’s website). The spins seemed to land in the same area of the wheel – making one revolution I presume. Few were hits, but none (“Bedlam,” “Earthbound” for instance) were disappointing. After hearing them it would have been hard to trade them for something else.
Costello’s version of Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire” took a long journey into three other songs and was quite different from the original (or the Siouxsie & the Banshees or “Absolutely Fabulous” versions I know well). I was curious about his version of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” which he’s played at many shows, but the “Rainbow” jackpot was not in the cards for Charlotte.
Costello ventured into the crowd close enough for some fans to touch during “Episode of Blonde” (when I snapped the above photo). Luckily he didn’t rely solely on the wheel to determine the set list. He chose as well, dedicating “Either Side of the Same Town” to songwriter/producer Jerry Ragovoy who died at age 80 earlier this week.
He wasn’t above cheating either. He nudged the wheel a notch in favor of “Peace Love & Understanding,” which got the entire crowd to its feet and followed that up with “Substitute” by the Who and an extended version of my favorite “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” (thank you, thank you, thank you Mr. Costello). With a catalog so vast and strong it’s impossible to guarantee that your favorite will make the cut (unless it’s “Alison” maybe). I felt lucky. The folks behind me got their request as well in “I Want You,” another song that benefited from Costello’s wheel manipulation.
He appeared solo to begin a quieter, rootsier run of songs that included “Sulphur to Sugarcane” then encored looking fittingly `70s movie thug in a shiny copper leather jacket and leopard print hat for “Watching the Detectives.” After nearly three hours he ended the set with “Everyday I Write the Book” and “Pump It Up.” The latter bookended the wild, punky feel of the beginning.
What’s so great about the Spinning Songbook is that you can bet aside from a few repeats that the sets in Charleston Monday, July 18, or in Asheville on Tuesday, July 19, will likely be quite different. I wouldn’t mind doing it all over again when he stops in Durham September 22.