Elvis Costello and the Imposters at The Ryman, 9/25/11



Following this week’s four-day foray into the Land of Sound — where the beer flows like the falls of Niagara and the streets are paved with discarded after-party fliers — The Spin spent most of Sunday lugubriously laying in bed, heavily dry-heaving, letting out sad little weak moans of pain and nursing a cumulatively oppressive, third-day-in-a-row hangover from hell. In other words, we were more than ready — mentally, physically and emotionally — for church. The church of holy rock ’n’ roll, that is.

Sure, we felt like Pvt. Pyle after the soap-sock beating in Full Metal Jacket, but that wasn’t gonna stop us from trekking out to The Mother Church to catch Elvis Costello and the Imposters and their spinning songbook. What do you think we are, fucking stupid?

Not only that, but we got there on time. Right on time, in fact, we set foot in the auditorium at the exact moment Costello & Co. set foot onto the stage. With lights down low, we sauntered in darkness to our seats as Costello started to croon “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” in Sam & Dave’s original, balladic form.

And then bam! The band kicked into the chorus, taking off into the man of the hour’s 1980 adaptation. The lights came up and the theater came to life, revealing the band on a spectacularly multi-colored, Gameshow-ready, Space Age bachelor stage — complete with a boob-tube backdrop, martini bar, go-go dancing booth (complete with a go-go dancer) and the show’s other star: the rainbow-riffic spinning wheel of songs that, with help from the hands of some lucky fans (not to mention fate) would determine most of the night's on-spot set list selections.

But before those festivities got underway, Costello and band — featuring all of the original Attractions aside from bassist Bruce Thomas — had their own barn-burning quartet of selections to rev us up with. During “Can’t Stand Up,” to our dismay, it appeared the crowd literally could not stand up, until Costello punctuated the song’s finale by literally imploring that the pew-pasted Boomers stand up and get happy. And nothing got us happier than following that up with a stiff, breakneck trifecta of “High Fidelity” into Nick Lowe’s “Heart of the City” as followed by “Radio, Radio.” It was a mainline overdose of rock that back-stabbingly betrayed Costello — looking dapper as ever in his posh gray-and-periwinkle suit — and his Imposters’ age.

Next, the singer put on a top hat, grabbed a black cane and entered his show-host alter-ego Napoleon Dynamite, pulling lucky contestants out of the crowd — with the help of a lovely assistant — to take turns spinning the wheel. Once chance made a selection, that fan took his or her place at either the martini bar in front of mad-scientist keyboardist Steve Nieve’s station, or in the go-go booth where, technically speaking, they’d perform with the band … at The Ryman. Reactions were a mix of elation, wracked nerves, awkward gyrations and laughter.

And — many times immensely satisfying The Spin — the spins resulted in us getting treated to top-shelf EC gems like “Clubland,” a rare and rockin’ “You Bowed Down,” a stunning “Brilliant Mistake,” a crowd-pleasing “Everyday I Write the Book” and a killer “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea.” And all that beauty was hugely enhanced by the collective “oohs,” “ahhs” and “yaaays” that filled the room as the wheel would spin to a stop. Despite pinch-self moments like hearing Elvis C. take on Elvis P. with a cover of “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame,” we couldn’t help but feel utterly shafted by God Almighty when the needle would miss wheel deal possibilities like “You Little Fool,” “Watch Your Step” and“Beyond Belief.”

And what could ever make up for the abject heartbreak of not getting a chance to hear the Imperial Chocolate jackpot? How ‘bout getting show highlights like a smooth “Watching the Detectives,” which saw Costello singing walking around the theater floor? Or a captivating, slow-drawn take on Bob Dylan & The Band’s “This Wheel's on Fire” that the word “transcendent” couldn’t even begin to describe?

Best of all was an in-encore request from a husband to his newlywed bride for the slow-burning, dejected lover’s despondent death march “I Want You” — kind of grim choice for an optimistic groom. Not that we minded, as, with Costello and Nieve trading off on anguished guitar and melodica solos, the performance was spellbinding beyond even the song’s original recording.

Given the gig’s by-pant-seat, chimerical format, Costello’s consummate ability to entertain, his like-wine-aged croon and the band’s master musicianship in meeting him at every step, this was by far one of the most engaging and outright fun shows The Spin has ever witnessed. Even though it was built around far-flung cuts from Costello’s grab bag, bandleader and band filled the slots in between the wheel’s directives with in-the-moment selections (a pin-drop, oft-off-mic “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” comes to mind.) that codified the by-design chaos into a dynamic sonic arc of a set.

As such, the show finished much the way it started — with the band blazing through rock stompers like “Pump It Up,” “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” and a spontaneous rendition of The Who’s “Substitute,” making the show’s 135 minutes feel as though they passed in one enormous, 15-minute burst of joy.

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