Feb 082011

Once was enough...

It sucks being so easily dissatisfied. Yesterday I received a notification that Elvis Costello would be playing Philadelphia’s Tower Theater, where I enjoyed a number of cool shows in my youth and some midnight movies to boot. The Tower is a dirty, old theater that seats maybe 4000 people. It always had a good rock ‘n roll vibe, and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to take my 13-year-old son to see one of my heroes.

“Is he still any good?” my boy wisely asked. He knows most of the classic records, which we spin regularly, but noted that he doesn’t hear me talking about any new releases.

“Well,” I had to admit, “he hasn’t been good for some time, but this could be a good show.”

Now I take that back.Today I learned that this tour will bring back the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a brilliant concept in its initial incarnation, around the time of Blood & Chocolate, that was only occasionally funny when I saw Elvis and the Attractions first do this schtick at the Tower. Musically, the show left a lot to be desired.

The Spectacular Spinning Songbook wheel included selections from Costello’s already vast and diverse catalog as well as covers, from the Beatles to Prince, if memory serves. The show’s MC was the white-suited, white-haired, white-mustachioed guy from Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell, so that was a thrill for me. He’d call up folks from the audience to spin the wheel and determine the band’s next set. There were cages on either side of the stage with go-go dancers, one of whom may have been Costello’s wife-du-jour, the bassist from The Pogues. Plenty of hijinx ensued between song selections. And then even more time passed. The band would play a song or two and then the schtick would start up again. The Attractions couldn’t break a sweat. Elvis Costello & the Attractions shows to that point were all about breaking a sweat and playing 4-song segues at breakneck speeds. This show had none of that. I spent the whole night thinking I should be enjoying myself, but I really didn’t.

My son will have to wait for another tour for me to take him to see my old hero.


  20 Responses to “The Return of Elvis Costello’s Spinning Songbook: Not a Second Time”

  1. Is Costello aware that Yo La Tengo is currently touring with their version of the Spinning Songbook? Last night, apparently, “Perform a Sitcom” came up on the wheel, so they performed the Chinese Restaurant episode of Seinfeld in its entirety. I think YLT are taking the concept of the wheel to Andy Kaufmanesque “let’s irritate the audience” levels.

  2. misterioso

    Geez, that gag’s got whiskers. The last time I saw EC was when Brutal Youth came out. I don’t think that is likely to change.

  3. machinery

    Mr. Mod, I believe we saw him perform this fiasco at some auditorium/arena at Penn, no? Without the seques, it really lacked as I recall.

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Better to remember the good old days.

    Of course, if Bruce Thomas were to show, I might go against my better judgement.

  4. The second time I saw YLT Ira Kaplan did that with his writhing 10-minute guitar solos alone. Great concept, though, on their part. I wonder if someone like Costello really tunes into the goings-on of YLT or if he doesn’t care because it was his idea first.

  5. I have seen Costello several times — and he bats about .500 live in my experience. I hate to say it, but at this point, I’d rather go see his wife perform.

  6. Maybe, machinery. I know we saw a mediocre show with him there.

    Agreed regarding a return of Bruce Thomas. I’d go see Costello re-create that lousy Mighty Like a Turd show if Bruce Thomas rejoined the band. He’d even make that stuff sound half decent.

  7. Okay, so I’ll admit I’m a relative newbie to EC being since how I have only been a fan since the late 90s when I discovered him. I first saw him in 2004 at the Hi Tone Cafe in Memphis, site of the Club Date DVD that EC released. The next time I saw him was at House of Blues in New Orleans from the front. Same spot and venue a year later with Allen Toussaint.

    I’d go so far as to say that they were three of my very favorite shows I’ve ever attended. A nice smattering of “hits” along with some obscure titles and the obligatory new music. I like the new music, so what do I know?

    I never saw the Attractions, so I don’t Bruce from Davey, but I would not hesitate to see EC anytime he came near me. I was even lamenting the fact that this tour wasn’t coming anywhere near me so I would be missing this gimmick.

    Reading the liner notes to Rhino’s double-disc resissue of Blood and Chocolate concerning this tour, I have to admit that I am quite surprised to see the concept revived. I would think that EC leanred lessons from the original fiasco and will make improvements. Then again, what do I know?

    I guess, showing up late to the EC party, maybe I somehow survived the disappointments. I wasn’t around for the shock of those GREAT early-period records and I certainly wasn’t around for Mighty Like Turd. It’s all hindsight for me, so I might have some weird perspective.

    EC is easily one of my favorites and I would rank his one of the best live experiences I have had in recent years. But, like I said, what do I know?


  8. Maybe that’s the thing for me, I’ve yet to see a bad EC show. His average is much higher for me. This may explain why I wouldn’t hesitate to see him now.


  9. I got to see one fantastic one, a couple of good ones, and a couple of disappointing ones – and one turd. I was really psyched to him again, even with him playing recent material, but that Spinning Songbook thing got old fast the first tim I saw it. And you know plenty! You know what you know. Don’t be put off by us old coots.

  10. Hmm, let me think…

    1996 (with the Attractions): awful!
    1999 (with Steve Nieve): good
    2000 (with Nieve): good
    2002 (solo, in-store): mediocre
    2002 (with The Imposters): mediocre
    2008? (with The Imposters): mediocre, but better than the last two

    All of those shows, though, even the ”96 one, had their moment(s).

  11. misterioso

    I never saw EC in what might be called his prime, having first seen him on the Spike tour (solo & with Nick Lowe). Subsequent shows I caught varied widely in quality, and strangely, I think the most enjoyable and memorable show was seeing him with the Brodkey Quartet at Symphony Hall in Boston in 1993. The Juliet Letters is not a record I think to listen to very much, but that was a great concert.

  12. 1989 – with The Rude 5 – I had just started to listen to him and had never seen him live. I had a great time and though it was a fantastic show ( So Like Candy was an unreleased song that he brought out, plus much of the Kojak Variety stuff). Of course I did not really know of The Attractions.

    1994 – Attractions “reunion” – Was in the summer at an outdoor venue. Most of the people there had season tickets and went to soicalize and be “seen” (or got free tickets for being employee of the month at the firm) Needless to say the crowed could care less and it made the show a drag.

    2008 – Delivery Man tour was very good. Venue was The Tabernacle in Atlanta (a plus) and I walked down to the 3rd row 10 seconds before the lights went down and was able to stay there for the whole show (another plus) Good variety and not too heavy on Delivery Man stuff, in fact I think he did a song from just about every record and not all hit songs either (suit of lights!)

    I would go see the wheel of songs show for sure if it is at the right venue. I would rather the “wheel” be a part of the show rather than the whole thing. Even when Springsteen does the posters/signs it can kill the pacing of the show

  13. BigSteve

    I’ve seen him in 1978, 1981, 1983, 1986, and 2002, each one good to great, especially the fist and last. I don’t expect him to rock as hard as he did at the 2002 show ever again.

    The Revolver Tour, especially if I got to see it in a nice theater in a comfortable chair, sounds like it might be fun. The key would be not expecting him to be something he can’t be anymore.

  14. 2000 Man

    I only saw him once, in 02 opening for The Stones. It wasn’t total desolation for his set, but The Imposters and Elvis worked their asses off to get the wanderers to take notice. Us folks up front were treated to a spectacular blast of about 50 minutes and 30 songs worth of pure kick ass. I remember telling my fellow concertgoer that The Stones had their work cut out for them, and they came out and did five songs from Exile, right in a row. Man, that was AWESOME!

  15. ..forgot. I saw him open for Dylan in 2009. just him with an acousitic guitar that was plugged into an amp. Set was 30 minutes tops but he was good.

    Never had a “comfortable chair” on my check list for a concert. I prefer no chairs and access to the bar (but then again I am tall)

  16. Like I said before, I think I have been lucky to have never seen a “bad” EC show, but I’ll also admit that I have been spoiled. Eveytime I have seen him, it has been small venues and I was less than 10 feet away from the man. That may also color my opinion of these shows.

    I remember thinking it would have been cool to see him open for The Police, but then I thought that it would have been a let down to have to see him in a large arena.


  17. Dude, uncanny. I was going to cover EC and Elton on my own blog, but you beat me to the punch. I saw EC back when I was living in Pittsburgh a few years back. It was an outdoor show, completely ruined by the inclusion of Emmylou Harris. Now, I’ve got nothing against her, but I really did go to see him, and he just kept bringing her out, nevermind that she was also the opening act.

    I really wanted to like the show. He opened strong with “Clubland,” and did some old chestnuts here and there, but mainly it was boring shit that I’ve never had any interest in. As far as I’m concerned “Brutal Youth” was his last really enjoyable album, but then before that I’d have to go all the way back to “Punch the Clock,” and even that one’s not great. Yeah, I’m in the minority that never liked “King of America.”

    To me, Elvis and Elton and other dudes like them long passed from Interesting into Important, and that always leads to disaster. Screw what made me enjoyable in the first place! Let me bore you to tears with some soppy ballads or ventures into esoteric territory such as The Juliet Letters that only the most devout will embrace!

    Christ, you know it was bad when “When I Was Cruel” was first issued and it had a sticker on the front saying something about it being his first “loud” album in a while. Too bad it was just as boring as his quiet crap.

    It does sadden me slightly, given that I’d throw “My Aim Is True” into my top 10 greatest albums list any day, and thoroughly enjoyed “This Year’s Model,” “Armed Forces,” “Get Happy!!!” and “Trust.” “Imperial Bedroom” was where the Important started to take hold, but at least he still had some of his old sensibilities. Maybe once you quit cocaine and fighting with your bassist all that’s left is to make cameos in Spice Girls and Austin Powers movies.

  18. I just remember that in the Blood and Chocolate reissue notes, Elvis noted that the best nights of the original Spinning Songbook tour were the ones where he had a really good guest MC: Tom Waits in one city, Roberto Bernini in another. Conversely, the night where a couple Chicago Bears MCed was a big bomb. Do you remember who the guest was in Philly, Mod? I wonder if he’s going to continue this practice on this tour. Or does he think his talk-show stint makes him plenty charismatic? I hope not!

  19. The MC was awesome – and someone I was already a big fan of (even though I didn’t and still don’t know his name). I described him as having white hair, but he didn’t. He can be seen singing with Costello midway through this key scene in Straight to Hell. He did his MC bit as this character. Surely you’ve all seen this movie:


    Again, the problem was the band not being able to get into the flow. My wife, last night, suggested that the wheel may actually help them now that they’re not as young and hopped up as they used to be.

  20. Fox Harris? He played J. Frank Parnell (the guy with the car) in Repo Man!

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