IN TUNE: Elvis Costello realizes that playing songs in the exact order pegged by an enormous spinning wheel can make for a choppy night, so he had each “contestant” spin twice during the first of two sold-out “Revolver” shows at Montclair’s Wellmont Theatre. This way, he could go with one or the other.
CLIFFVIEW PILOT photos
With dozens of his own selections spiced by a few choice covers, Costello and the Imposters rocked hard, in a performance that held tight.
If this is any clue to how dynamic and energetic a set it was:
They were barely a third of the way through and had already played “Radio Radio,” “No Action,” “Miracle Man” and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” as well as a cover of Nick Lowe’s “Heart of the City,” before kicking into an amped-up version of the Larry Williams song cut by the Beatles, “Slow Down.”
Which they didn’t.
Following close behind was “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea,” “Shabby Doll,” “Town Cryer” and “Little Fool.”
So much for anyone trying to handicap a set list – for some of us a welcome change in the Internet age. Allow yourself the opportunity to be surprised, the message goes, and you will be.
Costello and the band sprinted from one marquee tune to the next, barely stopping to catch a breath in the 32-song marathon. Many of the set-ups came courtesy of “The Spectacular Spinning Songbook,” a 12-foot-tall wheel that Elvis debuted a quarter-century ago.
Red, green, yellow and purple, the prop gives select audience members escorted to the stage a game-show buzz, the proceedings emceed by Costello – a/k/a Napoleon Dynamite, a tongue-in-cheek vaudevillian raconteur in a silk black top hat (temporarily replacing his straw porkpie number) and a bejeweled cane.
Once the wheel stops, the “players” can either jump into the “Hostage to Fortune Go-Go Cage” that is otherwise occupied by one of Costello’s mini-dressed/go-go-booted dancers, or have a cocktail next to the peerless Steve Nieve in the “Society Lounge,” with a vintage mini-bar, portable black-and-white TV and stools that the master of ceremonies said are made of solid gold.
“They were given to me by my friend Chris Christie shortly before he dropped out of the race,” Costello told the howling crowd, “if he was even in it to begin with.”
( Groans, boos, cheers. )
The wheel had various “bonus strips,” with titles such as “Time,” which produced “Strict Time” and the elegant “Man Out of Time,” deftly followed by the Stones’ “Out of Time” (Anyone remember what Vietnam-era film used that song over its closing credits?).
Showman that he is, Costello took the wireless mic into the crowd, bringing contestants back to the stage with him as he sang.
“Man Out of Time” was a prelude to a set known as “Imperial Chocolate,” with several songs from the magnificent “Imperial Bedroom,” as well as the underrated “Blood and Chocolate” – which, by the way, gave birth to the wheel in 1986 and also supplied the night’s wry opener, “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”
There were several nice touches amid the entertaining schmaltz, including a sultry Pink Panther-styled version of “Inch by Inch” and a passionate “Uncomplicated.”
He didn’t do this one (hey, I thought this was the “Revolver” tour), but it’s definitely worth a listen, thanks to Nieve’s keys:
Few in the crowd may recognize the name Jesse Winchester – and even fewer may know that he was diagnosed months ago with esophageal cancer. The beautiful balladeer has influenced Elvis, whose version of Winchester’s “Payday” was a gentle change before the show flipped back to all-out rock-and-roll.
In fact, things only got harder and heavier, not hokier, as it barrelled to the finish.
The diabolical “I Want You” smoldered, as it should, building in vicious intensity, with Costello jack-hammering the guitar and Pete Thomas – as muscular and lightning-fast as ever — snapping the skins. It was almost as if John Lennon was fronting Crazy Horse, in a fitting end to the regular set.
The first encore turned funky, with Elvis first singing Chester Burnett’s “Commit a Crime” through a bullhorn, then his own “Songs of Sneer.” He slyly brought the mood down for an “Interlude” that began the second encore: A pair of surprising ballads, “Still” and “I’m in the Mood Again” (both from his 2003 album “North”), followed by the mournful “Pills and Soap.”
Then it was back to the wheel, which at that point produced the only sour note of the night, an overwrought version of “New Lace Sleeves,” a song bursting with so much wordplay that it all but demands a subtle touch.
Messrs McManus and Nieve more than made up for it with a majestic duet on “Riot Act” – Costello in rich, full voice, Nieve dancing through flourishes on the keyboards, and then the front man ripping off a blistering guitar solo (Who knew?).
The final encore found a lone Costello in the spotlight, skipping through the typically clever “A Slow Drag With Josephine,” from his most recent album, “National Ransom.”
The band members then slipped in behind for “Allison,” with a few lines from “Tracks of My Tears” (Smokey Robinson) and “You Win Again” (Hank Williams) and, of course, the requisite crowd sing-along. I’d privately hoped he’d skip “Pump It Up,” but the guy is a crowd pleaser. And who could argue, especially after a show that lasted a full 2 ½ hours, capped by a restyled, funked-up version of “Everyday I Write the Book”?
It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, what with Costello’s ginormous catalog and the request wheel, not to mention the great expectations that we longtime fans bring (it’s 35 years now).
But Costello is nothing if not an awesomely skilled musicologist. He never really was a punk, in fact. He came to the States by way of Tin Pan Alley, worshipped at the shrine of the Fab Four and fell under the spell of as many artists as he himself influenced. His rich talent, which at 57 continues to evolve, would make Solomon blush.
He might as well rename his prop The Wheel of Fortune.
A word about the Wellmont: In case you haven’t noticed, it’s become North Jersey’s top concert hall.
And although the respective vibes of the Capitol Theater and the Academy of Music/Palladium can never be duplicated, the folks at the Wellmont have created their own buzz. They book terrific acts that fill the joint (Upcoming: The Pixies, Trey Anastasio, Cyndi Lauper/Dr. John, Jackson Browne, Guster, Ray Davies). Their sound system is stellar. And the staff is firm but fair. Plus, there are plenty of places to park and an amazing amount of eateries and hangouts all around. For more:
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