A few month ago, when this show was announced, I had my doubts. That night my wife, interrupted yet another of my dinnertime rants and said, “Maybe he’ll play more of his old songs if he’s going to use the spinning wheel.” We considered going to see Elvis Costello on his Revolver Tour after all, even bringing our boys. It might be the last, decent Costello show the world will ever see, we concluded, ominously, envisioning a similar future scenario a friend experienced a few years ago, when he took his son to see a battered Bob Dylan, the Shell of His Dylan, making no effort to engage his audience, playing barely recognizable versions of any songs people wanted to hear and a bunch of stuff off his last half dozen “comeback” albums, that is, albums that have had the good sense not to tone it down and not stomp out the remaining sparks that fly off an artist who once shone as bright as the sun.
Three songs into Thursday night’s Elvis Costello & The Imposters’ show at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater, with a setlist dictated, in large part, by the the Spinning Songbook I realized the joy and sense of satisfaction that I was feeling would carry me through whatever post-Nick Lowe–produced lowpoints the wheel might dictate. After storming out of the gates with a 4- or 5-song pub rock reaffirming segue that included “Hope You’re Happy Now,” Lowe’s “Heart of the City,” and “Radio Radio” he called his first audience member up to spin…”Human Hands”! The wheel was especially giving to fans of Get Happy!! and Imperial Bedroom, culminating in a 4-song “Time” set of “Clowntime Is Over” (slower, B-side version), “Strict Time” (!!!), “Man Out of Time,” and The Rolling Stones‘ “Out of Time.” The majestic “Man Out of Time” is a song that has ever-increasing personal relevance as the high heel that was a young me is ground down. Hearing it helped me put a lot of my emotion-packed day’s events in perspective. At this point in the set I knew that the initial burst of joy would not be exhausted.
Bring on overblown turds like “I Want You” and “Shot With His Own Gun”! I puffed out my mind’s chest and shouted to myself, but each spin of the wheel bypassed the turds and landed on winners: “Watching the Detectives,” “Hoover Factory,” “Black and White World”… Maybe the only song I didn’t care to hear all night was “Pills and Soap,” a poor-man’s “Shot With His Own Gun” that Elvis and Steve Nieve hammed up to the point of entertaining cabaret. Elvis paced through the crowd and sung from various seats, even sitting on a man’s lap at one point.
To give the wheel time to refresh, I suppose, he occasionally threw in some of his own choices, including “Shabby Doll,” and covers, such as Paul McCartney‘s “Let Me Roll It” and The Who‘s “Substitute.” Everything was just right. Costello’s professionalism and respect for his audience and back catalog were admirable. Pete Thomas is still the Greatest Drummer in the Game. Nieve still wears the mantle he inherited from Garth Hudson as Rock’s Most Dangerous Wildcard. Even the big, goofy “imposter” bassist, whose lack of juice and narrow stance will always leave me wanting Bruce Thomas, delivered a professional set and hit all his octave leaps. It’s nice that he can sing backing vocals, too, something the original Attractions could never quite deliver.
My wife and I loved the show. Our kids loved the show. Our little guy didn’t get to hear his two favorites, “Opportunity” and “The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes,” but our older boy raised his fist when the wheel landed on “Black and White World.” It was probably the second-best Costello show of the many I’ve seen, running behind only his majestic JKF show opening for Genesis, of all bands!
The show wasn’t even marred by a 2-song, solo pre-encore of Elvis plucking out jazz chords on a tiny acoustic guitar and singing his version of McCartney’s Songs for Me Auntie tunes. The second song, might have been “God’s Comic,” “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” was a selection that my high-heeled self of days past might have grumbled over. Midway through the song two numbskulls shouted out stuff like, “Ah, come on! Play something we want to hear!” The kind of thing I would have thought if not come close to shouting out myself if I were back at the outdoor Mann Music Center on a hot, humid Philadelphia summer’s day watching a fat, bearded Costello play songs off Mighty Like a Turd with Marc Ribot showing his complete inability to play “real” guitar parts on any song requiring a simple Steve Cropper lick—and the fat, bearded Costello complaining about how “fucking hot” it was on stage. That July day my wife actually shouted out, “Why don’t you lose some weight, shave that beard, and take off the jacket!” By this point my friend Townsman machinery and his wife had long split, maybe 4 songs into the show’s ballad-heavy intro, grumbling, “I didn’t come here to see fucking Celine Dione!” There would be no grumbling from us last night. When the knuckleheads attempted to shout down Costello’s brief foray into Auntie Songs he nicely responded, “Ah, but you want to hear this—and we’ve got plenty of time!” Like the rest of the audience, I had Elvis’ back. What more could we want from the guy last night? Sure, I allowed myself a brief smile over the triumph of hearing someone call bullshit on that part of his catalog, but I was ready to send those two packing, to send them back to their copies of Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits.
Thank you, Elvis. I need to be reminded now and then that I still have some heroes.