Cloaca Melodia

My life in concerts, by Mike Sauter.


Elvis Costello/Nick Lowe

Lynah Rink, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

This was one of the best concerts I've ever attended. Me and the people I went with--my girlfriend Alyssa, and Tim and Chris--were all Elvis fans, and we had heard that he was doing a tour with a Spinning Songwheel: audience members would be brought up on stage to spin the wheel, and whatever song it landed on, Elvis would perform. Nick Lowe first came on solo (it was offially called the "Elvis Costello Almost Alone" tour, since it was just Costello and Lowe solo--at least according to the t-shirt I bought), and did a great smattering of his songs. Then Elvis came out, announced "Welcome to my world" and opened an umbrella with a map of the world printed on it. He then launched into "American Without Tears" and a bunch of new songs from the King of America album. After a decent-length set, he departed, came back for an encore with Nick to do a duo version of Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," and then left the stage once more. The house lights came up. People started streaming out.

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Me and my companions stared at each other. Is that it, we asked ourselves. Where was the Spinning Songwheel? Was all our advance information that far off the mark? In those pre-internet days one had to rely on a handful of music magazines and word-of-mouth for a lot of music news, and information was sometimes as much from the rumor mill as from actual news sources. Before we had a chance to question too far, however, the house lights died once again. The true fans like ourselves cheered wildly. Those on their way out but not yet out the door whipped around their necks to the stage and then hurried back to their seats. The theme from A Clockwork Orange began blaring over the sound system. A voice announced the arrival of Professor Napolean Dynamite, and Elvis returned to the stage, draped in academic gown and cap. He then had the curtain at the back of the stage raised, revealed the fabled Spinning Songwheel!

It was a vertically-mounted wheel of fortune with various song lyrics labeled in each of the colored wedges. The stage also sported a go-go cage and a faux bar (which he called the Society Lounge), and explained that his assistant would bring audience members on stage to spin the wheel and then they could either dance in the go-go cage or relax at the Society Lounge whilst he performed whichever song Fortuna compelled him to play via the wheel. Besides some of his own compositions listed on the wheel, "C&W Request" and "Pretty in Pink" were some of the options I recall. Before allowing each audience member to spin the wheel, Elvis would ask what they wish it would stop on. As the show went on it became obvious that Elvis was manipulating the wheel to stop it on their requests (eventually he made it clear that the game was "rigged" by allowing the wheel stop just past the requested song and then he would move the wheel in reverse to hit the proper song. What a great night.

Here's an excerpt from the Cornell Daily Sun's review of the show:

The evening might be described as a tale of two shows. The first hour or so, in which Costello borrowed heavily from his two most recent albums, indicated that the idea of having this kind of concert in front of so large an audience might not be such a great idea.

Although Costello’s performance itself was, for the most part, excellent, the size of the hall and the general rowdiness of the crowd made it difficult to follow the subtleties of such songs as “American Without Tears” and “Green Shirt.” Unless you were one of the fortunate few to get a decent seat, you probably spent a large part of the time, as I did, being hassled by security while looking for a suitable place to actually hear what was going on …

Then came show number two.

This time, Costello emerged as Professor Napoleon Dynamite, decked out in bright red robes. Whereas Elvis Costello had stuck primarily with obscurities, Napoleon Dynamite was there to give the people what they wanted. Costello and his alter-ego ranted and raved alongside a toy drum set, a dancing “cage,” and, of course, the infamous “Wheel” a huge contraption adorned with the names of Costello’s most popular songs as well as some other oddities and anomalies.

And here's the review from the Ithaca Journal:

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