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Elvis Costello's Spectacular Spinning Songbook Keeps His Band and Fans Alike Guessing

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer spoke with THR about the set list that has brought new life to his tours and features in his new live album.

 Elvis Costello London - H 2011
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Relentlessly prolific, fearlessly genre-bending and still a staple on the road, Elvis Costello makes trying to follow him a dizzying proposition. And that's even before he brings the giant, spinning wheel onto the stage.

The British rock icon has made a career of defying expectations of the staid music establishment, garnering a loyal audience even as he jumped from pub to punk, new wave to jazz, piano ballads to orchestral numbers and back to rock again. And while he's found ways to harness all those discordant sounds into playlists before, these days, he's upping the live ante: enter the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a massive wheel packed with different songs from throughout his career; spun after each performed number, Costello and his band the Imposters perform whichever song comes up next.

"The wheel just at least sort of gives them a glimpse at some of the options before we break their hearts," Costello joked to The Hollywood Reporter before he performed at an event in support of the SeriouslyFun Paul Newman Foundation summer camps.

First introduced during a 1986 tour, when his discography was just a fraction of today's offering, Costello brought back an even bigger version of the wheel to his stage show during last year's Revolver Tour. Today marks the release of The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a live CD and performance DVD recorded during a two-night stay at LA's Wiltern Theatre during the Revolver jaunt. Spun by a kind of quasi-showgirl Vanna White, it serves as a career-spanning shuffle that keeps everyone guessing.

"I think it makes it more fun for everybody. It has a lot of fun in the show, but when you’re doing the show, if you get a serious song, which you can, or a blues song, you try to sing it for what it’s worth," Costello said. "There’s no point if the whole thing was just a satire. Obviously, we have a dancing girl who is terrific; she has a great sense of humor about it. We’re obviously not going to suddenly turn ourselves into that singing and dancing routine."

Of course, while Costello and the Imposters aren't becoming a vaudeville act, it does mean that they have to be extra prepared for the shows; they've got more than 150 songs that will pop up over a given tour, with tones liable to shift at any time, an ironic consequence of his wide-ranging career. And for fans, it means accepting that their favorite songs may not get played, and getting excited to experience tunes with which they hadn't been familiar.

"It’s the same as every show you go to; you go hoping you hear certain songs, but you also hope that you hear the songs played well," Costello said. "So, the songs are chosen in an intelligent way when I program the set, or whether they’re chosen randomly, which means that we have to drop right into them, we have to react to the idea of them right away. That actually creates a different kind of tension and excitement for us in playing them and hopefully that communicates to the audience."

Costello sets out on a 13-date tour of North America next week, followed by two months in Europe. And while those dates are concrete, what will happen at those shows will be a surprise.