Elvis Costello came out of the gate on May 24th – the last night of a three-show run at New York’s Beacon Theater and the final date of his “Revolver Tour” – like he was playing the concert in reverse. The singer-guitarist and his Imposters – drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Davey Faragher and keyboard player Steve Nieve, Costello’s long-serving update of the Attractions – jumped into what, on any other evening, would have been a rush of encores: “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Nick Lowe’s “Heart of the City,” “Mystery Dance,” “Uncomplicated” and “Radio Radio.”
The energy and entertainment went up from there. Costello was celebrating the 25th anniversary of his Spinning Songbook, a giant wheel of fortune he took on the road in 1986, and he came armed with the combined kitsch of a game show and lounge act: a bar, a go-go cage with dancer and an Austin Powers-style hostess-dollybird; his own eye-popping selection of fedoras and sport jackets. When he wasn’t singing or slamming at his guitars, Costello worked the stage like a burlesque-club emcee, cracking wise at a mile a minute and spinning a dandy’s walking stick.
Fans – and one celebrity, drummer ?uestlove of the Roots – were plucked from the audience to spin the wheel, which featured song titles and album references covering Costello’s hits and deeper work. Some labels, with sly references to tunes and topics, allowed the host to have his own fun with the results. When the wheel landed on “Detectives vs. Hoover Factory,” Costello told the audience they could vote for “Watching the Detectives” (huge roar) or the early rarely-performed “Hoover Factory” (surprisingly loud cheer). Then he played both, prefacing the latter with memories of riding the bus to his own factory job in London, back in 1973.
Costello pointed out how much time had passed since he last rolled out the Spinning Songbook. He was then touring behind two of his best albums, the solo King of America and the electric Blood and Chocolate, made with the Attractions. But instead of hitting the charts, Costello noted ruefully, “they were buried in a field in Utah.” He paused. “Now there is no Columbia Records,” he said of his old U.S. label, grinning like a victor. With country singer-guitarist Jim Lauderdale, Costello performed “Indoor Fireworks” and “King of America,” both from that album. And earlier, when the wheel came up “Imperial Chocolate,” Costello followed a double shot of Imperial Bedroom (including a harrowing “Shabby Doll”) with the long slow snarl of Blood and Chocolate’s “I Want You,” drawing out its obsessive desire and intimidation with a hissing vocal and acidic splashes of Fender twang.
The Spinning Songbook was the treat and centerpiece of the show, but Costello has never worked or traveled without a version of that wheel. His encyclopedic passion for popular music is a vital component of his helter-skelter work rate, as fuel and ideal, and at the Beacon, Costello punched up his loves like numbers on a jukebox. He celebrated Bob Dylan‘s 70th birthday with a solo reading of “License to Kill” from Infidels and threw a snatch of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” into “Pump It Up.” Costello covered Prince (“Purple Rain”) and Wings (“Let Me Roll It”), quoted Jimi Hendrix (“The Wind Cries Mary”) and paid roundabout tribute to British soul singer Chris Farlowe with a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” – a British Number One for Farlowe in 1966.
Costello and the Imposters ended the night as they started it, with velocity and challenge: the Who‘s “Substitute” and Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding.” Before he left the stage, Costello swore to the crowd he’d see them again soon. He may not have the wheel, but he’ll have that Songbook in his head, spinning hard.