Updated Wed, Mar 14, 2012 3:48 pm
When Elvis Costello brought his Spectacular Spinning Songbook show to the Chicago Theatre on May 15, it was my 14th time seeing him. As he rocked me to my foundations for the better part of three hours, I was borne back to the very first time: April 17, 1989 in Athens, Ohio, in Ohio University's “Mem Aud” (Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium). Back then, I was 18 and a senior in high school. This year, I had just turned 40, having lived in Chicago for 18 years. In '89, it was a solo show, with special guest Nick Lowe joining Elvis for a few songs. Now he was backed by his crack band the Imposters, featuring two musicians who are legends in my personal pantheon, Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums. Bassist Davey Farragher brings an American bottom to what, pre-Davey, had been a quintessentially British combo, the Attractions.
Then as now, Elvis took the stage in his Napoleon Dynamite persona (yep, he thought of it first, kids); a sort of devilish, demented game show host with top hat, scepter, a series of extraordinary jackets (plaid, gold lame) and an eye for louche fun. I’ll always remember Elvis taking the Mem Aud stage in ’89 by leaping from behind the stage left curtain, brandishing the scepter.
The big wheel was back as well, standing on the stage in all its red, yellow and purple glory (he’d first rolled it out on the “Blood and Chocolate” tour in ‘86, a few years before my time). Each slice of the pie held a song title; the purple ones stated a theme which would trigger three or four songs. As he kicked off with “I Hope You’re Happy Now” and “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution”), a female dancer did a 60s bop-and-shimmy in a go-go cage on stage left.
Throughout the evening, an usher would venture out into the audience and bring up “contestants” to give the big wheel a spin. While Elvis played their song, they had the option of sitting on the barstools at the “lounge” next to Steve’s keys and enjoy a cocktail, or get in the go-go cage and dance. Most of the women elected to get in the cage, having an absolute blast, as did the one guy who felt moved to get in and shake his stuff.
At one point in the evening, the wheel landed on the theme “Girl” and the band broke into “This Year’s Girl”, “Girls Talk” and the Beatles’ “Girl” (“And Your Bird Can Sing” was on the wheel too, another nod to one of Elvis’ biggest influences).
Not only was it a night for celebrating Elvis’ songbook, it was also a night for showing all the different guises you could hang on the basic structure of classic rock & roll, pop and soul. The rhythms and chords of "Uncomplicated" morphed into Junior Walker & the All Stars' "Shotgun"; The Band's "This Wheel's On Fire" into "The River In Reverse"; “Allison" into The Miracles' "Tracks Of My Tears"; and "(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding" into Prince's "Purple Rain" and back again.
One contestant was given two spins and, remarkably, the wheel landed on “Living in Paradise” both times. Elvis made a crack along the lines of, “I know Chicago’s a great city in which to live, but this is kind of pushing it.”
The songbook had grown in those 22 years since that first night. A song like “45” now took its place alongside old favorites like “Radio, Radio”, “Mystery Dance”, “Accidents Will Happen,” “Waiting For The End Of The World,” and his signature song “Watching The Detectives.” The wheel landed on some lesser known gems as well, such as “The Element Within Her” and “The Other Side Of Summer”.
During the encore, Elvis launched into “God’s Comic,” from “Spike”, which will always be the “here’s where I came in” record for me. I first heard him do it at OU in ’89, when “Spike” was the new album. In Chicago in 2011, as per tradition, the crowd sang along on the droll “now I’m dead” and “I was scared” refrains. Then a new song...now an old favorite.
The 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"
"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"
Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other reviews at http://dreamsandvisions.squarespace.com/.