Somewhat spellbound by the spectacular spinning songbook

Elvis Costello isn’t the easiest of persons – I kept that in mind last night while entering the Kongresshaus in Zurich. He’s just weird and nasty in some interviews and downright odd in others, and then he comes out and surprises you by being really tame and gentle. So if he announces his tour with the return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, I knew that it would take some getting used to. The stage was dominated by that gigantic colored wheel full of songtitles and little in-jokes such as “imperial chocolate.” There was also the Hammer of Songs and the Hostage of Fortune Go-Go Cage. At home, you get Mr McManus the musician; in here, you get Mr Napoleon Dynamite the entertainer.

When he came on stage, I realized the place was only two thirds full, and the applause was sort of lukewarm. No matter – Mr D started with “I hope you’re happy now,” and the go-go girl in the cage made it clear that the maestro was here to have fun. To me, the setting was a slight distraction from the music, and the music… I had a hard time to warm up to it in the first half-hour. I found “Turpentine” flat and uninspired. It was only when someone spun the wheel for “Tokyo Storm Warning” that I knew I had come to the right place. “She” was proof that there was a cupboard crooner in the house.

Besides Costello, there were Steve Nieve at the keys and Pete Thomas on drums, both longtime companions of the Attractions as well as of the Impostors. They did what they could, but there was no way for them to play some of the songs in a way that would have made them more distinct from one another. I had hoped for a rhythm section and some horns that would have played a gloriously loud “Bedlam” or “Needle Time”, but no. “Tramp the Dirt Down” didn’t stand out at all.

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So I went along with what was there: a couple from the audience who didn’t know or didn’t want to tell if they were married, and to each other. (Mr MacManus: “Is there something you want to tell us?”) A good rendition of “Condemned Man.” And there was that folksy woman during some sort of “break,” yodelling and playing a small accordion. Was she local? No idea.

Then after that break, something happened. Elvis Costello came back alone and played an acoustic bit with “Jimmie Standing in the Rain”. That stuff worked beautifully, because here, the musician took over from the entertainer. I didn’t mind that he invited some more audience members and the go-go girls back on stage. And, of course, there had to be “I Want You,” which sounded not nearly as fucked up as it should have. I really would like to hear one live version of that song where it almost falls apart and breaks down. It works best when it barely works at all. It’s a song of its own kind.

Then he started to cheat. He wouldn’t accept requests for “Oliver’s Army,” even when it came up on the songbook, and played something else. It pissed off some people in the audience, but I had to smile to myself. That’s just typical, but what did you expect?

It was a good concert once it clicked. There were the typical imported bits, this time the Rolling Stones’ “Baby You’re Out of Time” and the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”. Last night Mr D the entertainer was in a good mood, and I wish the musician Mr C would have tried to have as much fun as him.

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