Elvis Costello charges through the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, Cambridge Corn Exchange, 26 May 2012

The Eurovision Song Contest was held last night, which would normally mean that I’d be spending the evening slumped on a sofa surrounded by beer, crisps and despair (my account of last year’s experience is here). This year however I was able to break the cycle by dint of having an opportunity to tick off one of the really major items on my musical to-do list – Elvis Costello was playing Cambridge for the first time in decades, and while the tickets were hair-raisingly pricy he’s one of the few acts I’m genuinely happy to shriek “hang the expense!” about.

I’ve been a fan of Costello since buying Punch The Clock on a school trip to Norwich in 1984, and while I’m not really up to speed with the last few albums put up by this fearsomely prolific songwriter I’m ready to defend his first ten years’ output against all comers. This man must have written more great pop songs than pretty much anybody – Lennon and McCartney, Holland, Dozier and Holland, Carole King, Frank Sidebottom, you name it – and at least one of his records, the ostensibly Stax and Motown pastiching, but in actuality contender for greatest soul album ever made, Get Happy!!, will have to prised from my clammy hands with a sonic lance capable of drilling holes in Saturn’s rings when justice finally catches up with me and sends me to that desert island based containment facility. You get the idea.

For his current tour Costello has resurrected the format that he was using in the mid-80s round about the time of Blood And Chocolate. The stage is dominated by a vast fairground-style rotating wheel upon the fifty or so sectors of which appear the names of either tried and trusted selections from his copious back catalogue or slightly cryptic jackpot categories, such as “Time”, “Girl” or “Crime and Punishment”*. The bulk of the night’s set is thus chosen by members of the audience, who are picked out and led up by the stage by one of Costello’s glamorous assistants: they get to spin the wheel and the band then launch into whatever song the roulette arrow points at when it comes to rest, while the lucky punters occupy themselves either by sipping brightly coloured drinks at a faux cocktail lounge or by jigging energetically in a go-go dancer’s cage. When there are no members of the general public available or willing to provide distraction there’s another glamorous assistant on hand to throw some shapes. It’s an ingenious mechanism that allows Costello to vary his set-lists and provide suspense and visual interest for his audience (even if you eventually start suspecting that the wheel may well be slightly rigged here and there), and also affords him the opportunity to relish his role as a slightly seedy master of ceremonies.

It also has the very useful function of allowing Costello to put on shows of extraordinary length containing several full-on sequences of four or five fast and ferociously delivered songs without physically exhausting his audience. At Cambridge he played for just shy of three hours and must have performed thirty odd numbers, very few of which had anything of the laid-back about them. Incredibly, this is more or less the same band that he was playing with in the late 70s when he was in danger of becoming a regular, if slightly funny-looking, pop star: Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve remain on drums and keyboards respectively, with the only change being Davey Faragher on bass in place of the estranged Bruce Thomas (Thomas wrote a distinctly non-complimentary book about his life on tour with Costello, and the two haven’t seen eye-to eye since). The main man himself must be nearly sixty now, but doesn’t look significantly different to how he did in 1977, or 1983, or any time outside his ill-considered beard years. It’s possible the porkpie hat he sports throughout is there to conceal baldness, but it suits his stage persona just fine. The band open with a blast through a few highlights from Costello’s 70s repertoire, and surprisingly this sets a pattern for most of the evening – I may have just had a lucky night, but it seems that most of the audience selections come from the era I’d consider golden, with amazingly few being unfamiliar to me, presumably because they’re drawn from recent albums. Whether rigged or not, the band tear through this stuff like they’re amphetamine-fuelled teenagers, and while the acoustics at the cavernous Corn Exchange are never going to be ideal for an M.O.  this aggressive you can at least always pick out the singer’s commanding vocals. He may not be your cup of tea, but this guy can really sing, and sometimes you feel he doesn’t even need the public address system.

It’s not all rama-lama mind. A couple of hours in, the band leave the stage and Costello goes acoustic, first on guitar, then on ukulele, playing songs which sound like they started in life in 1930s folk clubs but knowing this songwriter’s fecundity may well be original. It’s a welcome change of pace. He also gives us his soulful, if slightly overwrought, take on the immortal Shipbuilding, which may be his best ever lyric, and the savage, Thatcher-hating Tramp The Dirt Down, which as he points out in one of his many humorous and chatty asides, seems to have become depressingly relevant again. There’s also a startling interlude in the middle of Watching The Detectives where he leaves the stage and wanders through the packed auditorium while chanting like a shaman – presumably he knows his audience demographic well enough by now not to expect any disrespectful invasions of his person.

And then, just before the end, and just as I was inwardly bemoaning the absence of any material from Get Happy!! we get a climactic run featuring not only I Can’t Stand Up and the awesome High Fidelity but 24 carat crowd pleasers Oliver’s Army and Pump It Up. The roof duly comes off, the band take a bow, the lights come up and you can watch the wheel start to be taken apart by the road crew as you shuffle out. The longest gig I’ve been to since I stood in the middle of Wembley stadium watching Springsteen in 1985, but definitely one of the best. Value for money at twice the price.

* It turns out these unlock sequence of songs with a common theme. Last night someone got “Numbers”, which led to Two Little Hitlers, My Three Sons, 45 and so on.

Setlist, included for Costello obsessives only (updated 29/5/12, and should be definitive now. Amazingly, he played no less than 12 of his first 15 UK singles):

I Hope You’re Happy Now, Heart Of The City, Mystery Dance, Radio Radio, Bedlam, Living In Paradise, Big Tears, Shabby Doll, My Three Sons, Less Than Zero, Two Little Hitlers, 45, One Bell Ringing, Accidents Will Happen, Alison, Everyday I Write The Book, (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea, Shipbuilding, Watching The Detectives/Help Me, Clubland, Good Year For The Roses, A Slow Drag With Josephine, Who’s The Meanest Gal In Town Josephine, Jimmie Standing In the Rain, Tramp The Dirt Down, National Ransom no. 9, I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, High Fidelity, Oliver’s Army, Pump It Up/Day Tripper, What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding


18 responses to “Elvis Costello charges through the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, Cambridge Corn Exchange, 26 May 2012

  1. Bruce not Steve.

  2. Thanks Trevor, now corrected.

  3. Happy to find this review; thanks for reminding me that I didn’t imagine it.

    He threw in a verse & chorus of “Day Tripper” into “Pump It Up” too.

    And finally, by curious happenstance, Bruce Thomas’s book was entitled “The Big Wheel”.

  4. Thanks Paul, Day Tripper duly noted. I haven’t read Bruce Thomas’s book as the reviews I’ve seen always make it seem a bit mean-spirited…but I see where he got the title from now.

  5. Craig Hatfield

    I recognised a couple of Woody Guthrie lines (can’t remember what they were now tho!) at the end of the final song of his accoustic section, but the song sounded so un-Woody Guthrie like in delivery, (and I’d nipped out to the bar again so missed much of the rest of the song), so I don’t know whether he just totally rearranged a familiar song out of recognition, or whether he just threw a few relevant Guthrie lines onto the end of another song.
    Ooh! Just remembered the lines now (with apologies to Woody Guthrie); “some people will rob you with a shotgun, and some with a fountain pen. But as through this world I ramble, and through this world I roam, I’ve never seen an outlaw drive a family from it’s home.”
    Shed any light?

  6. Cheers Craig. I didn’t spot the Woody Guthrie lines, but he threw in a bit from “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime” round about that point in the set. I think most of the acoustic songs were from his most recent album, which I’ve now ordered, and I’ll update the set list once I’m a bit more confident about it.

    • I’d completely forgotten about “Brother..” but it reminds me that he sang the last few words off mike and with dramatc flourish to kill the lights.

      My other half was convinced that Elvis was going to play Richard Thompson’s “Al Bowlly” when he started the intro to “Jimmie Standing In The Rain”.

  7. OK, I’ve done a bit of cheating and I think the setlist above is now correct, although I’m sure there are still bits chucked in from other songs not accounted for.

  8. Thanks for the excellent review and accurate (as far as i can tell) setlist. This gig is without doubt the most enjoyable I have experienced in many many years of gig going. That is partly though due to the fact that my daughter and i were lucky enough to be called up on stage to swing the hammer. Being present on stage whilst they ran through Everyday I Write and Chelsea was something I willl never forget. A very kind fellow Elviis fan has already sent me an excellent shot of us on stage with EC. If you have any similar photos, i would be grateful if you could let me know at the email address supplied.
    Many thanks.

    • Mark

      Top man and daughter! My wife got enthused enough to start snapping away on her phone, but after a collection of shots that mostly featured the raised arms of the Scouser in front (bless him, he was having the time of his life) decided to stow the phone and stick to enjoying the music. So no pictures I’m afraid.

  9. Thanks Mark, and sorry I ended up leaving the hammer out of the review, I just felt it was getting too damn long (the review, that is, not the gig. He could have carried on playing all week as far as I’m concerned). What a brilliant birthday present for you! Sadly, I’ve haven’t got any pictures other than the one above despite having a great vantage point at the front of the balcony as the phone of my camera can’t really handle long distances. But I’m not going to be forgetting the gig any time soon, and I suspect you won’t either!

  10. It was the first time I have been to an Elvis gig and I wasn’t disappointed! The energy of the band was incredible. A fantastic night, will never forget it.

  11. Hi Lynne. Thanks for the comment – my first time too, and I reckon it’s a gig that might pass into legend!

  12. Just stumbled across this review as I was searching to see if anyone else had enjoyed the gig as much as I did – clearly they did! Geat summary and nice to have the set-list – I’d lost count of all the tracks played. How refreshing to have a truly live band – no click-tracks, tapes or hidden musicians here, just 4 guys on top of their game and a cracking song-book to go at. Just bought the DVD/CD package of the same gig (not exactly the same obviously as it’s at least partially spontaneous) from Amaxon for £13 – a good souvenir of one of the most enjoyable musical nights i can remember. Not to mention one of the longest………. Thanks for capturing it in a really good review. Kev

  13. Hi Kev. Thanks for that, and I agree that it was great to hear these songs performed in the raw, so to speak. Funnily enough they were playing this CD when I was in Fopp a few weeks ago, and I admit I was tempted – would be interested to know what you think of the DVD…

  14. The DVD is pretty good and includes the interludes with lounge music whilst the next member of the audience takes the stage (the live CD just plays the actual songs).. Haven’t timed it end to end but I think it’s getting on for 2 hours. Certainly captures the energy and fun of the event, and it’s good to see the musicians and instruments etc close up. Comes in a nice package with a booklet with loads of photos and sleevenotes. Good value I thought. One final reflecton on the gig: everyone was chatting and laughing at the end, a real buzz, unlike other ‘worthy’ gigs I’ve been to (eg Eagles, The Police) where folks shuffle out in almost silence at the end. It’s all down to entertainment and engagement.

    • Spot on observation about everyone chatting and laughing. Though not the most gregarious of indviduals, both myself and my partner fell into conversation with our neighbours at the front.

  15. Cheers, it sounds like a pretty faithful representation of the show, I might check it out. Good point about the audience enthusiasm – I don’t go to many “big” name shows, largely because they often seem totally controlled and non-spontaneous, something you couldn’t say about Elvis’s gigs on the evidence of this one!

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