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Elvis Costello at Chicago Theatre: Let the spinning wheel ride

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Pity the poor set list. Exposed by web sites and attacked by the current album-in-concert trend, it's getting harder to find an artist who can deliver real surprises anymore, much less one who carefully crafts a song sequence as if making a mix for a lover -- shaping the experience (and the message conveyed) not only by the selection of songs but by the order of their ideas. Now here comes pop music chameleon Elvis Costello, throwing every set list over to chance.

Half of it, anyway. Costello's Sunday night concert at the Chicago Theatre found him again dwarfed by the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a giant, vertical roulette wheel he debuted on tour in 1986. The wheel-of-misfortune contains 40 songs and a few themes; fans come on stage, spin the wheel, and the band plays that selection. It's a clever gimmick, but it has its perils. Thankfully, Costello prefigured those and crafted a show that side-stepped the wheel's cruel fate for most of the evening's performances. A nimble vaudevillian, he kept things moving.

Costello and his band, the Imposters, roared to life on stage, starting the show by barreling through five rockers with a ferocity revisited only sparingly for the rest of the show. Looking trim and lively in a gray suit and hipster hat, Costello barked out the tunes backed by bassist Davey Faragher (Cracker) and his former mates from the Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas and wildly versatile keyboardist Steve Nieve. A pink-fringed go-go dancer in a beaded cage complemented Nieve's '60s-era runs on a Vox organ and occasional theremin.

Scripted moments like these were the best ones Sunday night. The wheel, well -- if you're going to tour a greatest-hits show, the wheel is at least occasionally amusing if also a real momentum killer. Switching to a top hat and brandishing a cane, Costello introduced himself as Napoleon Dynamite (a pseudonym predating the 2004 cult comedy) and started pulling game-show contestants on stage. At first, the wheel produced interesting results -- "45" ("There's a record / so you put it on," he sang, reflecting the evening's whims) and "The River in Reverse" (dedicated to the people of New Orleans, who Sunday night were awaiting the Mississippi's flood waters and no doubt also wondering "What do we have to do to send / the river in reverse?") -- but soon began throwing up some clunkers ("Accidents Will Happen" is an example of a great song that bursts to life, and thus suffers from a lengthy, spoken here-it-comes introduction).

The wheel's theme labels produced mini-sets. "Time" was the first (selected by an ecstatic female fan), and the thrill returned because we didn't know what was coming next -- the quivering piano of "Strict Time," the Rolling Stones' old-fashioned "Out of Time," the ripping "Next Time Round" and more -- followed by "Girl," which included "Girls Talk" and the Beatles' "Girl."

Costello's voice started to evaporate by this point, but it didn't slow him. After a two-hour set, he came back and imposed an hour of encores, sounding hoarse and occasionally dreadful. Every song in the final hour -- wheel-free surprises all -- finished big, as if it were to be the night's capper ... and then turned into another, or a medley (tacking Prince's "Purple Rain" onto "Peace, Love and Understanding," Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" onto "Alison," Ray Charles' "I'm Busted" onto a 6/8 blues reading of "Pump It Up," quoting Van Morrison's "Gloria" in the middle of "Waiting for the End of the World," on and on). After more than 30 years of making music -- in almost as many styles -- Costello boasts a lot to showcase. Amazingly, this partly random method of doing so was fairly fluid, engaging and worth the money.


Elvis Costello's Sunday night set list:
"I Hope You're Happy Now"
"Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)"
"Mystery Dance"
"Uncomplicated"
"Radio Radio"
"45"
"The River in Reverse" / "This Wheel's on Fire"
"Living in Paradise"
"The Other Side of Summer"
"Accidents Will Happen"
"Strict Time"
"Out of Time"
"Next Time Round"
"Man Out of Time"
"The Element Within Her"
"This Year's Girl"
"Girls Talk"
"Girl"
"Beyond Belief"
"Chelsea"
"Pump It Up" / "I'm Busted"
Encores:
"Slow Drag With Josephine"
"God's Comic"
"Alison" / "Tears of a Clown"
"Rocking Horse Road"
"Waiting for the End of the World"
"Watching the Detectives"
"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" / "Purple Rain"

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6 Comments

Cheesy and uneven...get rid of the bimbos - unnecessary distraction. Laugh In was years ago and women no longer need to be objectified - dirty old men up there with the teenage cheerleader and skin tight court jester. The band was great - Elvis' voice tired at times. Beyond Belief was butchered. I was disappointed - it's the music that matters not the side show! When Elvis sang Purple Rain I was waiting for the guys from Spinal Tap to leap on stage. Sorry to say, from now on I will be spending my concert dollars on bands in their primeā€¦

Fantastic show! I was surprised and thrilled that he played so many great songs from his early days. Elvis has come a long way as an entertainer. He seemed relaxed and in his element. The band sounded incredible - Steve Nieve is awesome! The show was intentionally campy and fun. With a set list of 30 songs/medleys, Elvis sure gave his audience their money's worth. Not sure what you expected or what more you wanted, Kate Mini, but I consider my concert dollars to have been very well-spent.

I don't think that you understand the purpose of his tour. Its a show hence there are performers, he included the audience more so than most bands would ever dream of. As far as him playing a few bad songs you must have missed the fact that he played a 30 song set list, please amuse me and say that you have done that without sounding raspy from time to time. If your too stupid to realize he wans't in his prime before you purchased your tickets thats your own problem and I believe you need to get your priorities in order if you didn't enjoy the concert.

Suppose calling someone you don't know "a bimbo" is not to "objectify"

Here's another one for you:

"Humourless bitch"...

Hey Tom-Actually I saw Elvis do this kind of show back in '89 with Nick Lowe as his opener and I said 'never again.' It wasen't bad per se, just not what we came to see and didn't make us want to run home and throw on 'Get Happy.' Granted I've been apeshit over Elvis since he pulled that fast one on Saturday Night Live back in the late 70's[I was a teenager imprisoned in a boarding school in Camden S.C. and the sight of him gave this closeted, trapped teenager hope for the future] but more often than not I've also learned to be a bit forgiving of his eccentricities["Almost Blue?" aaahhhhh...that's stretching it bub..."]. So as much as I want to I don't expect much from Elvis all the time. Now if he wants to come to Chicago and throw down a straight up un-pretentious set with forgotten gems[like "Hoover Factory," "Shipbuilding," "Room with no Number"], hits["13 Steps,""You Little Fool"], or covers[whatever he wants actually] I'm down for it. But that "wheel of fortune?" ...eh, no.

My girlfriend Kim and I were the last contestants picked (by Elvis himself rather than his henchwomen) for the last category ("Beauty or Beast", Incorporating Rocking Horse Road/ Wild Thing/ Waiting For The End Of The World/ Watching The Detectives/ What's So Funny About Peace Love & Understanding/ Purple Rain). It was one of two hightlights of my 50 year long life. Does anyone know where I can get good audio (or audio/video) of this show?

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on May 16, 2011 11:00 AM.

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