Why do we go to live shows? Squeeze into stifling venues, pay too much for the same beer we have at home in the fridge, occasionally cough up more for a ticket than we paid for every album the artist ever put out? We go because watching the people who wrote those songs and created that music put it back into the world right in front of our adoring eyes can be downright gob-smacking jaw-droppingly amazing.
Elvis Costello at 57 shames front men a third of his age. For his latest Revolver tour with the Imposters, which closed in Durham last week, he pulled out a stage prop that hasn’t seen daylight since 1986. Yes, that’s eighty-six, when most artists currently playing the 9:30 Club were either being conceived or their parents were getting stoned in the back of a Camaro and thinking about it. Costello pretty much defines prolific, to put it mildly, and back then he constructed a 20-foot high wheel containing a dizzying mixture of song titles, categories and random phrases, inviting audience members to come on stage and control the direction of the show. Spin the wheel or make a request, he and the band will play it. We don’t need no stinking warm-up, we don’t need no sound check for this stuff, we are so freaking good we can play anything you tell us to and blow your ears off in the process. That, my friend, is punk.
I was fortunate enough to have tickets to the last two shows of the reincarnation of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, in Jacksonville and Durham. After seeing Costello and his Imposters at Wolftrap last summer, I drove to Montreal for the Osheaga festival in August, where he headlined the Saturday schedule - yes, I said drove in my car, and yes, the one in Canada. Being a super fan can make you do some very strange things, but if you google the line-up for Osheaga 2011 you’ll immediately start building a time machine so you can go with me. For the new shows, Costello’s had another two decades to write more material, so the wheel now contains about 40 options and you never know exactly what show you’ll see.
Seemed more reasonable to pony up for a flight this time around, and I was handsomely rewarded with over 6 hours of Elvis Costello nougaty goodness. Each show was over three hours long, and I’m not going to do a play-by-play of the set list - we don’t have the band-width to accommodate how much ass was kicked by a bunch of middle-aged hipsters - suffice it to say that whatever Elvis Costello song is running through your head right now, he played it. Each show took the audience on a bi-polar junket of sound, with bar-brawling versions of Radio Radio/Pump It Up/Name Any Other EC Ass-Kicking Song Here, to stunning, un-miked acoustic renditions of Alison/Brilliant Mistake/Long Honeymoon/Name Any Other EC Lyrical Masterpiece Here. At both shows he performed a devastating solo version of I Want You, and although I’ve now seen that same piece performed 4 times within a calendar year, I could feel the hairs stand on the back of every collective neck in the place. And any woman who hears Costello croon Slow Drag with Josephine on a ukelele and doesn’t immediately run to the county courthouse to change her first name is an idiot.
Costello’s shows in the 1990‘s/2000’s were sometimes referred to politely as ‘listening parties’ - Sit still and pay attention, kids, while this old dude shows you how art is created. For the Revolver tour, however, Costello reverts to his masterful command of a stage, reminding everyone that he is indeed the ultimate showman. Napoleon Dynamite in a top hat? Check. Shiny black carnival barker cane? Double check, now add shiny costume changes, preening, pacing, witty banter, go-go cage, drinks on stage, all rampage, check check check. At the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville, which is normally a seated, sedate venue, by the end of the first 20 minutes half of the audience had moved forward into the aisles and pushed to the front of the stage - it drove the ushers insane, but nobody gave a shit. Lawyers, accountants, teenagers, grandmothers, everyone swaying and singing along to every one of those perfect lyrics.
So again, why do we bother? Because that seat or that rented one-foot square of sticky floor space can be your portal to something remarkable if you truly love music. It’s time to say Adieu to the Spinning Songbook. Costello has said this is the last time we’ll see it, but let’s wait on that one - if 25 years from now, he drags it out of storage, knocks off the rust, and re-cranks the carnival at the age of 82, it will still be something to see, and I’ll be there in the front row, wearing a nametag that says ‘Hello, My Name is Josephine.”