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Elvis Costello spins through Durham

By David Menconi
dmenconi@newsobserver.com

DURHAM -- Over the decades, I've been happy to follow Elvis Costello's many detours down tangential musical byways, from country stringbands to classical string quartets. I've 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 brought to Durham Performing Arts Center 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 You're Happy Now" and ending with an encore including "Clubland," "Pump It Up" and "(What's 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 MG's. As always, Costello offered a veritable musicology lesson about his own catalog. At one point as the band vamped on Booker T's soul instrumental "Time Is Tight," Costello noted that he had turned that riff into his 1980 song "Temptation" -- and sang it to demonstrate.

Sunday's show was vastly different from Costello's previous Triangle appearance in 2009, when he brought a six-piece country band to Cary's Booth Amphitheatre and played an Englishman's take on Americana. This band was stripped down and so was Costello, who appeared slimmer and fitter than he's been in years.

This was the final U.S. date of Costello's 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 high striker and a huge wheel of fortune with several dozen song titles, topics and themes.

Four songs in, Costello put on a black tophat, took up a cane and went into a carney 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.

You'd 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 Costello's "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 band's sole guitarist Sunday night, and he put in plenty of six-string heroics. Nieve and Thomas also played well, although the keyboards didn't seem loud enough in the mix for much of the show. And bassist Davey Faragher's backup vocals were on-point and just-right throughout.

Even with the spinning-wheel format, few of Costello's standards went missing. By the end of the night, he'd included "Alison," "Watching the Detectives" and "Everyday I Write the Book." He made 'em all sound brand new.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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