Elvis Costello rocks his hits is not as especially pulse-quickening headline. The perenially touring provocateur-turned-crooner-turned-Colbert Report bit player still releases new music at a harrowing clip, but as with most rockers of his demo—he’s 57—his concerts tend to emphasize material from the first decade of his career. At the Warner Theatre last night, his 28-song, 135-minute set featured only a half-dozen selections written during the last 20 years.
Even so, he changed things up impressively from when he brought his Spectacular Spinning Songbook to Wolf Trap’s Filene Center back in June, repeating only eight tunes from the three-dozen-song epic he performed then. (You’re welcome, trainspotters. Someone has to pay attention to this shit.) You need a deep catalog of strong material to get away with that. (I’d already heard Nick Lowe play “Alison” when he opened for Wilco Sunday night, so I didn’t mind that Elvis, or perhaps his wheel, chose last night to give his most resilient crowd-pleaser a rest for once.)
The Spinning Songbook is a game-show-style wheel Elvis has been using this year to keep his setlists from becoming too predictable. He first toured this concept in 1986-7, when these songs would’ve been fresh; he hadn’t revived it since. There’s a carnivalesque atmosphere to these shows, with Elvis pulling double duty as event MC Napoleon Dynamite, abetted by two lovely assistants and a go-go cage audience members can dance in if they’re brought on stage to spin the wheel. (Guest hosts on the 1986 tour included Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits. That’s some inspired casting, there.)
Anywho, here’s the rundown on five of the wheel-selected songs performed last night that you won’t find on the many, many best-of (and rest-of) compilations Mr. Declan Patrick MacManus has given us over the many, many years.
(1) “The Other End of the Telescope.” Elvis shares credit on this farewell ballad with Aimee Mann, which first appeared on the third and final ‘Til Tuesday album, Everything’s Different Now, in 1988. Elvis’s own version opens his marvelous 1996 set All This Useless Beauty, an attempt to reclaim some of the songs he’d written for other artists.
One of that album’s strongest tracks is “Complicated Shadows,” a don’t-take-your-guns-to-town sort of thing he wrote for Johnny Cash. Cash never recorded it, though he did cut a different song Elvis wrote for him called “Hidden Shame”, and he also used a cover of Elvis’s “The Big Light” to open his Johnny Cash is Coming to Town album in 1987. Of the sole song Cash and Costello ever recorded together—-a cover of George Jones’s “We Oughtta Be Ashamed” cut at then-Cash-son-in-law Nick Lowe’s home studio the day after Christmas, 1979—-Costello once quipped, “the title proved to be prophetic.”
Elvis has a history of singing Johnny Cash songs. When the spinning songbook landed on “CASH” last night, the result was back-to-back covers of “Cry, Cry, Cry” and a haunting, solo acoustic (2) “I Still Miss Someone.” It wasn’t as great as the many occasions on which he has performed this song with Emmylou Harris, but it was pretty goddamn good.
Another of last night’s jackpot selections was “TIME”, prompting performances of Elvis’s “Strict Time,” “Man Out of Time,” and “Next Time ‘Round,” followed by — and this was a delightful surprise—(3) The Rolling Stones’s “Out of Time,” from the mid-60s, when they could do no wrong. Elvis wandered the Warner’s aisles as he dug into the kiss-off’s refrain, finally inciting the largely trousers-and-Blackberries crowd to stand and sing.
Other surprises? Well, Elvis got the crowd to sit still for four tracks from his most recent release, National Ransom, a generally well-regarded effort that even I haven’t spent much time with. He performed three of them in a single solo acoustic sequence, after the Imposters had taken their first bow following a smoldering “I Want You.” Near the end of the fizzy (4) “A Slow Drag of Josephine,” he broke out one of his better tricks, stepping away from the microphone to fill the hall with his unamplified voice. You know who takes this as an invitation to clap along? The kind of jackass who needs to have his hands amputated, that’s who.
The Imposters returned to the stage to join him on “Sleep of the Just,” a ballad from 1986’s King of America that felt of-a-piece with National Ransom’s caravan of weary hustlers, deserters, and entertainers.
Imperial Bedroom, the 1982 album that brought a previously-unsuspected lushness and gloss to the Attractions’s sound, got a lot of play last night. A pair of its selections, “Beyond Belief” and “Man Out of Time” appear on the long-supplanted single-disc compilation The Very Best of Elvis Costello & The Attractions (my personal gateway drug to this music) and thus can’t really be counted as rarities. But two IB album cuts made the gig, too, “Town Cryer” and “You Little Fool.” Please enjoy these official music videos for (5) “You Little Fool” and (6) “New Lace Sleeves,” which showed up as another audience-pick late in the show. They differ radically in their approach, hiding their singer and putting him front and center, respectively, but they wear their early-Thatcher-era incept dates with equal pride.
Man, this cat has written a lot of good songs, holy cow.
Oh, here’s the complete setlist:
01 Lipstick Vogue 02 Watching the Detectives 03 So Like Candy / Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (The Animals) 04 The Other End of the Telescope 05 All-Time Doll 06 Strict Time 07 Man Out of Time 08 Next Time ‘Round 09 Out of Time (The Rolling Stones) 10 Cry, Cry, Cry (Johnny Cash) 11 I Still Miss Someone (Johnny Cash) 12 Town Cryer 13 You Little Fool 14 Pump It Up 15 Heart of the City (Nick Lowe) 16 (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea 17 I Want You
18 All These Strangers (solo acoustic) 19 A Slow Drag with Josephine (solo acoustic) 20 Bullets for the Newborn King (solo acoustic) 21 Sleep of the Just
22 Welcome to the Working Week 23 No Action 24 Uncomplicated 25 Beyond Belief 26 New Lace Sleeves 27 National Ransom 28 (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?