“Look at these hits!” Elvis Costello told the sold-out crowd at New York’s Beacon Theatre last night, using a cane to point to the colorful 12-foot wheel featuring 40 song titles – everything from classics like “Alison” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” to obscurities like 2008’s “Turpentine.” “We’ll perform songs about chance! Songs about love!” Costello declared. “Songs about sex! Songs about death and songs about dancing! But not necessarily in that order.”
He covered just about all those topics in an epic 30-plus-song show, the second in a three-night Beacon stand, that included his best angry-young-man anthems, Irish folk ballads and soul covers. Costello first brought the Spectacular Spinning Songbook on tour in 1986, allowing audience members to spin it to determine the set lists, and duetting with guests like Tom Waits, Tom Petty and the Bangles. Rolling Stone described that tour’s five-night L.A. run as “part rock show, part game show, part free-for-all.”
You could say the same for last night’s show, the second-to-last on his 13-date Revolver tour: It definitively proved the 56-year-old proved hasn’t lost any vigor since the original Songbook shows. After a preplanned blast including “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Nick Lowe’s “Heart of the City” and “Radio Radio,” Costello put on a top hat and introduced himself as his pseudonym “Napoleon Dynamite,” shining a spotlight into the crowd, explaining no one was safe from being called onstage to spin the wheel. The most terrifying part? Depending on the song’s tempo, audience members either danced in a go-go cage stage right or sat at the “society bar,” a gold-painted table stocked with martinis and a television broadcasting white noise – or as Elvis called it, Fox News.
It was pure showmanship, and Costello was having a blast. The first female guest spun “The Detective.” Costello strapped on his Fender and busted out chunky reggae riffs against whirring organ. He took the reluctant guest into the go-go cage with him, and he grooved while using the cage’s hanging beads to assault his guitar.
Next, the wheel landed on “Time,” an umbrella topic that included songs with “Time” in the title. He performed a heartfelt take of Get Happy‘s “Clowntime is Over,” a raucous “Strict Time” and then “Man Out of Time,” which built like a Springsteen epic. The best moment of the cycle came last, a garage-rock take of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.” Costello set his guitar down, stepped offstage and wandered the crowd, at one point dropping nearly to his knees like James Brown.
He brought back a young boy from the audience, who was beaming. “There’s an old saying, ‘Don’t send a boy to do a man’s job,'” Costello said. “But in this case I think we have the right man for the job.” He did: the kid spun “Oliver’s Army,” one of the night’s highlights.
Costello paced himself by rigging the wheel to ensure an acoustic set. During “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” he hushed the rowdy theater, singing an entire verse without a microphone. He invited the group Bible Code Sundays onstage, featuring his brother Ronan MacManus. Accompanied by accordion, fiddle and a single drum, Costello performed roving Irish ballads – The Costello Show‘s “America Without Tears” and “Little Palaces” which evolved into a thundering Celtic jam (He did after all, produce the Pogues’ greatest record, Rum Sodomy and the Lash.)
Later was a rumbling, psychedelic take on Momofuku‘s “Turpentine,” which he joked was scraping the bottom of the barrel. Costello switched from a Fender to a gold Les Paul, howling away and wailing on piercing wah-wah notes. He rocked out even harder to “Uncomplicated,” feeding off the energy of a female dancer in the go-go cage shaking maracas.
The encore was a show itself. Elvis sang “Lipstick Vogue” with Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, whose passion was no match for Costello’s. He then performed a rousing “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea” and then “I Want You,” a thudding blues jam that had him stabbing his guitar Neil Young-style, his vocals drenched in effects, bouncing from speaker to speaker.
For the final encore, Costello emerged in a gold suit and leopard-print hat and welcomed an audience member who exemplified the downside of a show with such heavy crowd participation. After Costello began the tender classic “Alison,” she made her way to the go-go cage and broke out some pole-dancing moves. Then she grinded up against Costello and fell down. He discreetly motioned for a go-go dancer to take her away. “Come and get your girlfriend!” he asked her companion helplessly when she still wouldn’t leave.
But the energy only encouraged Costello. He quickly moved into a soul medley including “Tracks of My Tears” “Tears of a Clown,” and “Suspicious Minds.” He then ripped into a raucous “Purple Rain,” inviting out T-Bone Burnett, who busted out some seriously jagged dance moves. He wasn’t done yet, performing “Pump it Up,” while working in lines of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – likely in honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday today. We can only imagine what kind of tribute Costello will give Dylan tonight.