Thursday, June 14, 2012

Elvis Costello and the Imposters: The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook! (Universal Music, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For our “feature” last night I showed Charles something, if not completely, at least rather different: Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ live album (recorded May 12, 2011 at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, a surprisingly intimate venue for someone who’s still enough of a star that one would think he could fill a bigger space) called The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook. Costello’s record label, Universal Music, released this in three formats — as a CD, a DVD and a deluxe package that combined both. Naturally, I got the deluxe package that combined both, and though I hadn’t played the CD version (and since CD’s have less playing time than DVD’s I suspected — correctly — that it didn’t contain the complete concert), I wanted to share the DVD with Charles since he’d also been a Costello fan “in the day,” though I suspect not as much as I was. I remember Elvis Costello as one of those artists — along with Bob Dylan and David Bowie — whom I didn’t just like, but from the moment I heard a song by them I was convinced that they were the coming voice in music, the voice that would change the art form forever and dominate it in their time. It seems odd at this stage to be treating Elvis Costello as a nostalgia act, especially since (like Bruce Springsteen) he’s done as much as possible to avoid being pigeonholed that way, recording different kinds of music with different ensembles (among his on-the-record collaborators are mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie van Otter, a string quartet, Burt Bacharach and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans) and sometimes going on tour with one of his alternate bands. The Imposters are three-fourths of the original Attractions (Elvis Costello on vocals and guitar, Steve Nieve on keyboards, and Pete Thomas on drums), but with a different bassist, Davey Faragher, since the original one, Bruce Thomas, apparently quit in a hissy-fit over royalties allegedly promised but not paid. The “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” is a concept Elvis Costello first toured with in the late 1980’s in which he took along a giant wheel-of-fortune spinner with the names of songs from his catalogue in the slots; he would invite people from the audience to spin the wheel and then he and the band would play whatever song came up.

The promotion around this concept, both in the 1980’s and more recently, made it seem as if Costello were making up his entire set list from random spins of the wheel, but in fact all he did was play three or four randomly determined songs and plug them into what was otherwise a pretty normally predetermined set list. One of the quirky things was how much the concept hearkened back to the forms of show business common in the early 1900’s — the DVD came with an optional introduction with Elvis, dressed in a top hat and tails and carrying a cane, explained (in his “Napoleon Dynamite”) persona the concept in such a stylized fashion it began to seem like The Imaginarium of Elvis Costello. He would put on this get-up during the show whenever he invited someone from the audience to spin the wheel and thereby sort-of pick the next song. The result was actually a fairly normal Elvis Costello concert video, not as blisteringly intense as some of the live recordings of him that exist from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (especially the Washington, D.C. concert from the This Year’s Model tour, which remains the best Costello live recording I’ve ever heard) but comfortable: he’s stouter than he was in the late 1970’s (aren’t we all?) but he’s still an energetic performer and he’s still good not only at writing songs but at playing the intensity of his music against his nerd-like public persona. And the accoutrements with which he surrounded this performance — the spinning wheel (the band even accompanied the wheel-of-fortune segments with an instrumental version of the Blood, Sweat and Tears song “Spinning Wheel,” a reference you’d really have to be up on late 1960’s/early 1970’s trivia to get) and the cage with go-go dancers doing their thing while the band played — added to the appeal and projected the image of a basically dorky guy trying to be a “showman.”

At least two of the volunteers were named Alison — a name to conjure with among Costello fans because one of his most beautiful early ballads was named “Alison” — one Alison spun the wheel and another one got called out of the audience because she was holding a sign that read, “My name is Alison. Please let me spin the wheel because My Aim Is True” (a reference to Costello’s first album, My Aim Is True, on which he recorded “Alison”). She got more than a wheel spin: she got invited on the stage and Costello sang “Alison” directly to her for one of the most moving parts of the show. I also liked the part in which Costello sent the band off stage briefly and did two acoustic songs, one of which was “Slow Drag with Josephine,” which he said was like an authentic ragtime-era number (well, yeah — except the lyrics are typical Costello, full of modern-day references and the sorts of stylish puns that made me think he was the one person who could have replaced John Lennon in a reunited Beatles — especially once he actually wrote a few songs with Paul McCartney!), and the fact that unlike virtually all other modern artists he was willing to do songs he hasn’t released on record, some of them originals and some of them covers (the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” and the Who’s “The Kids Are All Right” — I’d still want to hear Costello do the Who’s “Substitute” some day; Pete Townshend basically wrote an Elvis Costello song a decade before Costello started writing them himself! — as well as snatches of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” and “Tears of a Clown” which he tacked on to one of his own songs). Though all things considered I’d probably rather be listening to Elvis Costello exploring new musical horizons than reliving his past (and it makes me feel damned old that I can remember when these songs first came out … over three decades ago!), it’s still a fun disc and worthwhile for fans of Elvis Costello and anyone who still holds to the faith that just because music is “popular” doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be trivial.