DURHAM — Over the decades, Ive been happy to follow Elvis Costellos many detours down tangential musical byways, from country string bands to classical string quartets. Ive admired, respected and enjoyed most all of it. But I must confess that what still gets my heart beating fast are the rage-steeped poison-pen songs from his old revenge-and-guilt period especially when played by a loud-and-fast quartet like the one he took to Durham Performing Arts Center on Sunday night.
It was a spectacular show with three-dozen songs clocking in at just under three hours, played by a band featuring longtime Costello veterans Steve Nieve on keyboards and drummer Pete Thomas bashing away. The set drew heavily from the old days, too, starting with I Hope Youre Happy Now and ending with an encore including Clubland, Pump It Up and (Whats So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.
Yet it was hardly one-dimensional. Instrumentation featured everything from Theremin to ukulele, and the wide-ranging song selection included covers by the likes of Buck Owens, Chuck Berry and Booker T & the MGs. As always, Costello offered a veritable musicology lesson about his own catalog. At one point as the band vamped on Booker Ts soul instrumental Time Is Tight, Costello noted that he had turned that riff into his 1980 song Temptation and sang it to demonstrate.
Sundays show was vastly different from Costellos previous Triangle appearance in 2009, when he brought a six-piece country band to Carys Koka Booth Amphitheatre and played an Englishmans take on Americana. This band was stripped down, and so was Costello, who appeared slimmer and fitter than hes been in years.
This was the final U.S. date of Costellos tour featuring The Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a great onstage gimmick. The setup included a go-go dancer, a television showing static (As you can see, we keep the TV tuned to Fox News at all times, Costello quipped), a two-stool bar and a huge wheel of fortune with several dozen song titles, topics and themes.
Four songs in, Costello put on a black top hat, took up a cane and went into a carny rap as the band played Blood Sweat & Tears Spinning Wheel. That was the setup for audience members to come onstage, spin the wheel and determine the next song.
Youd think that might result in a set with no sense of flow or transition. But it was hugely entertaining, in part because of the canny structure of each spin suggesting groupings of songs. One audience member (who brought along two vinyl albums he made Costello sign onstage) spun to Happy, and the band obliged with three songs from Costellos Get Happy album.
Mostly, though, the format worked because Costello is a terrific and witty showman, and he kept things moving right along. His song introductions were as entertaining as the performances, especially one story about meeting Johnny Cash and another about playing No Particular Place to Go for an audience including Berry, Keith Richards and Leonard Cohen.
One audience spinner was a young woman in a red dress that appeared to be spray-painted on, and she did an impressive dance routine in the go-go cage along to Veronica. Another young woman requested My Funny Valentine, which appeared to just melt her; she sat onstage quietly weeping as Costello played it.
Costello was the bands sole guitarist Sunday night, and he put in plenty of six-string heroics. Nieve and Thomas also played well, although the keyboards didnt seem loud enough in the mix for much of the show. And bassist Davey Faraghers backup vocals were on-point and just-right throughout.
Even with the spinning-wheel format, few of Costellos standards went missing. By the end of the night, hed included Alison, Watching the Detectives and Everyday I Write the Book. He made em all sound brand new.
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