The terms fun and Elvis Costello don't necessarily go hand in hand. But on Thursday night, they got up to dance together in a go-go cage during a terrifically entertaining two-hour show at the Tower Theater.
The occasion was the return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, the kitschy concept in which the set list is determined, in part, by audience members brought on stage to spin a giant wheel. Labeled with orange and yellow song titles from Costello's 30-plus-year career, the wheel also included mysterious purple bonus selections such as "Time" and "Napoleon Solo," designed to take the show into still more unpredictable territory.
The convulsively prolific Costello initiated the spinning wheel back in 1985. That was the year he released both the punkish Blood and Chocolate, whose snide "I Hope You're Happy Now" opened Thursday's show, and the country-flavored King of America, whose "Brilliant Mistake" was dedicated to Glenn Beck.
(After spinning the wheel, audience members were offered libations in martini glasses as they sat in an on-stage lounge with a TV that showed only static. "We always keep it tuned to Fox News," Costello quipped.)
Longtime fans remember the 1985 Songbook shows as being not nearly as much fun as they could have been, mainly because all that wheel-spinning was a momentum-killer. The concept has since been tweaked for the better, however. For one thing, there were delightfully diverting visual aids such as go-go dancer Katerina Valentina, whose curtained cage was frequently occupied by male and female audience members with a less practiced sense of rhythm.
For another, Costello - who donned a stovepipe top hat whenever he stepped into the role of Napoleon Dynamite, smarmy emcee - made sure to keep the show moving. He opened with a barrage of classics from his abrasive new wave-era beginnings, including "Mystery Dance," "Radio, Radio," and "Heart of the City," by his frequent producer Nick Lowe.
The selection of "Napoleon Solo" led the 56-year-old, seriously slimmed-down singer to begin his encore with two tunes from last year's National Ransom. Both "A Slow Drag With Josephine" and the lonesome troubadour tale "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" were acoustic selections brought off with a practiced showman's dramatic flair.
The latter segued effortlessly into the Depression-era lament "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Costello, who was in excellent voice all evening, sang that snippet unmiked in a display of vocal power all the more impressive since he had canceled a show Tuesday night in Montclair, N.J., due to bronchitis.
More crowd-pleasing than that interlude, however, was the time "Time" turned up on the wheel.
That led to an inspired four-song riff that began chronologically with the stirring ballad "Clowntime Is Over" (from 1980's Get Happy!!), followed by the tautly percolating "Strict Time" (from 1981's Trust) and the dreamy "Man Out of Time" (from 1982's Imperial Bedroom), with a couplet or two from Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" added to the coda. To top it off, he jumped back in time to cover the Rolling Stones' 1966 hit "Out of Time."
That wasn't the only cool cover of the night. Costello, ably backed by the Imposters, the crack three-man band of drummer Pete Thomas, bass player and backup singer Davey Faragher, and the great keyboard whiz Steve Nieve, also threw in The Who's "Substitute" during a winningly concise final encore that concluded with a "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" that featured Nieve making kooky, creepy noises on a theremin. A fittingly nutty ending to the best Costello show I've seen in an eon. Let's hope it doesn't take 26 years for him to give the Wheel another spin.