We always knew there was something of the carnival barker in Elvis Costello. He may forever be viewed as a champion songsmith that has continually taken huge stylistic risks with his music over the past 35 years. But last night at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, he left nearly all of his tireless 2 ¼ hour concert beautifully to chance.
Backed by his ever-resourceful Imposters band, Costello opened the performance with a quartet of sterling rockers – I Hope You’re Happy Now, Nick Lowe’s Heart of the City, Mystery Dance and Radio Radio – that let the crowd know he still meant business when it came to performance drive. But then the fun really started.
Beginning with Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll’s Revolution), eager patrons were plucked from the crowd and invited onstage to have a go at the “spinning songbook” – a gargantuan, roulette-style wheel that sported titles of over 30 Costello songs, cover tunes and a few generic themes (“time,” “girls”) that gave the singer some latitude in performance selections. The patrons spun the wheel, Costello played the songs it stopped on and a vinyl booted co-hort referred to as “The Duchess of Lexington” (a local lass perhaps?) danced in the stage right “Hostage-to-Fortune Go-Go Cage.” Some of the audience invitees got their turn in the cage, too. Others were allowed to sip drinks in front of Steve Nieve’s keyboard set-up.
That’s the kind of air this immensely fun show went for. The result was a continually engaging and entertaining performance that gave new meaning to the notion of interactive art.
Some of the selections the wheel landed on offered some wonderfully unexpected treats – like a stunning New Lace Sleeves that was subsequently peppered with Nieve’s noir-inspired keyboard accents. Another delight was Waiting for the End of the World, which drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Farragher pumped up with enough big beat hullabaloo pop charm to do any go-go proud. The wheel actually landed on that one twice, but Costello balked at a repeat play. “The world can only end once,” he said.
As usual, Costello had a tough time serving up a nightcap. A regal audience sing-a-long cover of The Rolling Stones’ Out of Time briefly looked to be a lovely encore finale. But then Costello returned for a pair unaccompanied gems from last year’s Americana-slanted National Ransom album (A Slow Drag with Josephine and Jimmie Standing in the Rain). Still unwilling to call it a night, he came back for a third encore dominated by favorites the wheel didn’t click upon. Among them: a jam savvy Watching the Detectives, a deliriously involving Lipstick Vogue, a riotous cover of The Who’s Substitute, a coarse but powerfully propulsive Pump It Up and a suitably anthemic (What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.
That set shut the wheel down. But with arms and guitar raised in exaltation after the music stopped, Costello looked like he could have kept this go-go going all night.