Elvis Costello & The Imposters: The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook

High-energy show undermined by leaden recording

The Spectacular Spinning Songbook is a staging device Elvis Costello introduced on his 1986 tour. The giant spinning wheel is marked with songs that the band plays on the spot, in response to an audience member’s selection. The wheel contrasted with the calculation of a preconceived set list, injecting spontaneity into both the band’s job and the audience’s experience. Costello revived the wheel for his 2011 Revolver Tour, and a live recording was made during a two-night stand at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. The live set was initially released in an expensive “super deluxe” CD/DVD/vinyl box set, and has been reissued in more modestly priced CD and MP3 configurations.

As in the original release, the song list for the 16-track CD overlaps the DVD, but neither fully replaces the other. Also as in the original release, the set list is exciting and the band’s playing enthusiastic, but the recording is leaden. Costello’s vocals are often mixed too far behind a muddy instrumental mix that’s maddeningly bass heavy. Imagine yourself sitting at a bad spot in a medium-sized music hall or arena, and you’ll get an idea of the tonal balance. That said, it’s great to hear Costello and his crack band ripping through both the well-trod chestnuts of his enormous catalog, a few obscurities and a pair of covers. The latter includes an impassioned take on the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” and the Bangles-recorded Costello original “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution),” with Susanna Hoffs singing lead.

A bit of Costello’s stage continuity is included in the introduction to “Everyday I Write the Book,” but the bulk of the wheel’s spinning is edited out, quickening the show’s pace by reducing it to its randomly selected set list. The band repeatedly turns on a dime with its deep knowledge of the selected songsS, and the program flows surprisingly well given its relative lack of planning. Better yet, without the laborious stage mechanics that introduced each song, the selections still pack an element of the surprise one expects from a live show. It’s unfortunate that the original recording was mixed in such a ham-fisted manner, as the performances really deserve to be heard more clearly. [©2017 Hyperbolium]