Monday, May 16, 2011

Show review: Elvis Costello at the Chicago Theatre, 5/15

Posted by Andrew Hertzberg

The lights flickered. “Nothing like a little pressure,” the gentleman at the urinal next to me quipped as the Chicago Theatre let us know the show was about to start. For such an iconic city venue, I’ve never actually seen live music there before. An interesting show to be my first for sure, with Elvis Costello bringing his Imposters and the Spectacular Spinning Songbook. Essentially, the idea is that audience members get to spin a wheel with 40 songs spanning Elvis’s entire career and he has to play what comes up. This idea was reprised from when he first did it with the Attractions in 1986, and I wondered if this show would fare better than the one this reviewer from back then had witnessed.

Well, unexpectedly the group completely ignored the wheel for the first part of the set. They jumped into classics like "Mystery Dance" and "Radio, Radio." These were played at a 1977 pace, with Costello showing no limiting signs of his 56 years. It took only till the fourth song for the pervasive scent of overly-buttered popcorn to begin being bothersome. Alas, a minor inconvenience, and fortunately, the wheel was about to come into play. 

The Imposters transitioned to cocktail lounge jazz; Costello donned a black top hat and cane, and assumed the moniker Napoleon Dynamite. For those not in the know, Elvis was the originator of the name and how the film came to be named as such is sketchy. Nonetheless, Mr. Dynamite promised we would be treated with “songs about love, songs about death, songs about dancing: and not necessarily in that order.” The first spin from two ladies gave us "45" from 2002’s When I Was Cruel, a fitting introduction to the wheel in that that album was the first for the Imposters. The two ladies then sipped a martini at the onstage lounge before preceding the go-go cage to dance on the side of the stage. 

After the first blast of songs, the pace for the middle block of the set calmed considerably. The spectacle of selecting audience members and the unpredictability of the wheel gave Elvis time in between songs to share stories and quip about Donald Trump, Fox News and the lovely weather we’ve had this weekend. The next wheel spin yielded "The River in Reverse" from the 2006 album of the same name. The acoustic NOLA tribute wasn’t a high energy track, and the crowd took advantage of our assigned seats (here is where I refrain from an "older crowd" joke). Things picked up, though, when we took a flight to the other end of his catalogue with "Living in Paradise" off of 1978’s This Year’s Model and we were all back on our feet for "Accidents Will Happen." Costello’s voice wavered during the last chorus, revealing its current limitations. But throughout the whole set, this was the only time it detracted from the performance.

If there’s one thing I remember from performances past, it’s that this guy loves to cover. The concept of covering songs live doesn’t seem meaningful to a lot of artists, but it’s something I appreciate. Throughout the night we were treated to the Stones’ "Out of Time" as well as a subtle swagger added to the French gypsyesque "Girl" by the Beatles. As sweat was becoming increasingly noticeable through his grey suit, it was almost time to call it a night. The final audience spins gave us "Chelsea" and "Beyond Belief." Before leaving the stage, Elvis took the opportunity to tickle the ivories for a blues medley, transcribing the undeniably groovy "Pump it Up" into a ¾ piano bar jam, as well as performing the blues standard "Busted," popularized by Ray Charles and Johnny Cash.

Napoleon came back out alone for the encore, rocking a plaid suit jacket now. He started off with "A Slow Drag with Josephine" from last year’s National Ransom. He got off timing at one point and had to start again. You could really hear the nuances in his voice, though, and just how dynamically he uses it. He contrasts pubescent squeaks with a raspy tenor and a commanding yelp. His whistle solo was a ballsy move to do at the home of Andrew Bird, but he does it just as beautifully (albeit with an English accent). The crowd responded with their own whistles and applause when "God’s Comic" asked for it, the rest of the Imposters joining midway through the song. The crowd sing-a-long track of the night was certainly "Alison," but the medley style continued, with Elvis opting out of the final chorus and instead taking to "The Tracks of My Tears."

Another encore, another jacket: a gold one this time. The final spin: Beauty or Beast? The crowd cheers for the Beast. "Rocking Horse Road" to "Wild Thing" and back again. "Waiting for the End of the World." “G-L-O-R-I-A.” Never thought I would see go-go dancing to '70s punkwave reggae, but so it was for "Watching the Detectives." The track itself began to bear little resemblance to the recorded version from over 30 years ago. But that’s the advantage of playing for this long. If Elvis wants to shred and throw in an extended guitar solo, then that’s all it takes. No artist wants to play nor audience want to hear the same performances for a lifelong career, so all of the little intricacies and subtle nuances are what make the show worth it. The night closed with the upbeat "Peace, Love, and Understanding," with bits of "Purple Rain" spliced in for good measure.

The concept of the spinning wheel show is certainly a unique one. Some will argue it doesn’t work as the artist may disregard some more well-known tracks when chance chooses some of the deeper cuts. But it does keep the audience on their toes (although not always physically) and especially for someone with such an extensive catalogue, it’s refreshing not to hear the same things over and over again. Considering the last time I saw Elvis was at Ravinia with the more low-key Sugarcanes, Declan and the Imposters provided a more energetic and entertaining performance this time around. And although the frontman gathered most of the attention, he doesn’t deserve all of it. Steve Nieve was in charge of the keys and responsible for some of the more interesting sounds coming out of the analog keyboards that have probably been in use since the Attractions first started playing together. Drummer Pete Thomas has worked with Elvis for just as long and it shows through their tightness. Rounding out the rhythm section on bass was Davey Faragher, joining the group in 2001, and the only difference between the Attractions and Imposters. Overall, these four guys make amazing and dynamic rock music, surprisingly minimal, and have mastered their own aesthetic. The two-and-a-half hour set ended and the theater flooded out. Back to the working week.

(check out the entire setlist from the evening on Costello's website)

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