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)"
"The River in Reverse" / "This Wheel's on Fire"
"Living in Paradise"
"The Other Side of Summer"
"Accidents Will Happen"
"Out of Time"
"Next Time Round"
"Man Out of Time"
"The Element Within Her"
"This Year's Girl"
"Pump It Up" / "I'm Busted"
"Slow Drag With Josephine"
"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"