She didn’t need to do that. He was obviously going to play “Alison,” likely near the end of the show, if he stuck to the sturdy formula of saving one’s most durable tunes for last. Meanwhile, he was busy playing another song. I can’t remember which of the hundreds of tunes to his credit it was, but I would bet every hair on my head it was the one he’d determined ahead of time would suit that part of the lengthy program best. By howling for something else, the girl was denying herself — and much more importantly, me — the opportunity to enjoy it.
People like the screaming-for-”Alison” girl are probably why many long-lived artists who persist in releasing new music like to open their concerts with a standard or three: Familiar songs soften up the crowd, making them more willing to accept material with which they haven’t formed a prior emotional bond. As for people who can’t forgive the song on offer for not being the one — the only one, apparently — they want to hear, ignoring them is surely the best policy. Why would you undertake the expense and hassle of attending a concert if you only like one or two of the artist’s songs?
In the 15 or so years I’ve spent contributing heavily to the livelihoods of touring musicians, I’ve never run across anyone who handled the problem of keeping setlists surprising better than Elvis. For starters, he’s got more material to draw from than any songwriter I can think of. Even before he began branching way out beyond the nervy, literate, amphetamine-driven punk of the late-70s albums that made his name, he released a new set every year, and he’s given away dozens of songs to other artists besides. Thirty-five years in, what do you do with all those tunes?
Your loyal audience, some of whom, like me, weren’t around to hear you play “Pump It Up” or (sigh) “Alison” the first few hundred times, has a reasonable expectation of classics. Your loyaler-still sub-audience — me again! — wants deep cuts. You want to play us your new songs, and you should, even if much of the crowd will only ever want to hear songs they’ve heard before. How do you do all that?
Elvis does it as good as anybody, by playing in the 2.5-hour range with nightly changes to the set list. Bruce Springsteen does this. So does Prince. I’m sure there’re some worthy artists out there under the age of 50 who do this, too. Right? (Right.)
Anyway, Elvis’s current tour takes a novel approach to keeping the setlist from curdling. Enter the Spectacular Spinning Songbook! It’s a Wheel! Of! Fortune!-type, uh, wheel, with the names of 40 songs printed on it — his, mostly, but some by others. And some of them are multi-jam jackpots: At New York City’s Beacon Theatre last month, the wheel landed on “Time,” prompting Elvis to play “Clowntime Is Over,” “Strict Time” and “Man Out of Time.” At another Beacon show, the wheel stopped on the “I Can Sing a Rainbow” jackpot, prompting performances of “Blue Chair,” “Green Shirt,” “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” and, um, “Purple Rain.”
The show opens with a predetermined salvo of proven cork-poppers: “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” Nick Lowe’s “Heart of the City,” “Mystery Dance,” “Radio Radio.” After that, the show’s fate is determined by audience member wheel-spin.
This is, I think, a very groovy idea. Of course, you need a sizable catalog to pull it off, and your band needs to be ready to play any of those songs on a moment’s notice. Many acts wouldn’t have the chops, or enough songs, for it to work. But shouldn’t all artists strive to give us what others can’t?
Go on, give the wheel a spin!
Elvis Costello & The Imposters bring their Spectacular Spinning Songbook to Wolf Trap’s Filene Center Wednesday night. Tickets here.
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