Gig Review: Elvis Costello and the Impostors

Elvis returns to the building. Steve Beauchampé reports…

Elvis Costello and the Impostors The Spectacular Spinning Songbook, Symphony Hall, Tuesday, May 15th 2012

Elvis' Spinning wheel

Elvis' Spinning wheel

He could hardly fail. Elvis Costello, arguably Britain’s finest singer/songwriter since Lennon and McCartney (and don’t overlook the importance of those words ‘finest singer’), performing at Britain’s most acoustically splendid concert hall, and with a hundreds of quality songs at his disposal from his 35-year recording career. To give the evening an extra twist, Costello brought us the ‘spectacular spinning songbook’. It’s a simple format (one that he’s used previously), a large neon lit wheel containing dozens of song titles is placed on stage for audience members to come up and spin, guitarist Costello and the Impostors (Pete Thomas on drums, Davey Faragher on bass and Steve Nieve on keyboards) then playing their ‘selections’.

First though, and to warm things up, a be-hatted Costello and his band scorched through four crowd pleasers including I Hope You’re Happy Now, Mystery Dance, and Radio, Radio. Even from the top tier of Symphony Hall, Elvis’s every word, and the musicians every note, is crystal clear (so congratulations not only to the architect, but the sound engineer too).

Also present are Dixie (a dancer) and Katya, who collects audience members and takes them to the wheel. The participants then sit on stage (or even perhaps join Dixie in the Go-Go cage), while Elvis performs their song. In actuality he performs several songs for each spin, which maintains the show’s momentum. And what a fine showman Elvis is; adopting his Napoleon Dynamite persona, Costello is relaxed, joking with both his impromptu guests and those of us who remain off stage. Injustices still anger him though (several caustic references to News International, Rebekah Brooks and later, Margaret Thatcher when he sings Tramp The Dirt Down) but as master of ceremonies he’s a witty, urbane and genial host.

Indeed, during a rendition of She, his 1999 hit cover from the film Notting Hill, Elvis not only briefly dances with guest ‘spinner’ Joyce, but also comes down into the audience and walks along an aisle, serenading his public. Two other covers, Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and Chuck Berry’s No Particular Place to Go also feature (a first rate raconteur, Costello recalls the pressure of performing it in front of Berry himself…and changing the song’s time signature to boot!), in between a sequence of ‘Girl’ songs (This Year’s Girl, Party Girl, Girls Talk) the wheel having landed on the ‘Girl Jackpot’.

Given the set’s unpredictable nature, Costello keeps six guitars to hand, but ignores them for ‘spinner’ Vicky’s selection, Baby I’ve Been Wrong Before, during which he returns to the audience and actually sits next to one lucky fan while delivering a few bars of the song.

All This Useless Beauty is followed by a visceral I Want You, surely as powerful and intense a song as Costello has ever written. A short intermission before a brace of songs about girls named Josephine, played on a ukulele (No, I didn’t see that coming either!)

For the show’s final segment, the wheel is largely discarded as Costello performs a host of hits including Oliver’s Army, Shipbuilding, Watching The Detectives and (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea before closing with (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.

He’s been on stage for an astonishing 2 hours 51 minutes (he’s slowing down though, his 2003 concert at this venue lasted six minutes longer) and there are still many great songs that didn’t receive an airing! The chart hits may have dried up, but as he has done continuously over five decades, tonight Elvis Costello has delivered a welter of superbly crafted tunes filled with important lyrics. All culled from a body of work that stands against that of any of his contemporaries. Long may he thrive.