It was billed as a one-man concert, but the stage was crowded with alter egos by the end of the evening.
Before the eyes of the less-than-capacity crowd at the Civic Center, Declan MacManus transformed himself into venomous social critic Elvis Costello, and then he became jolly game-show host Napoleon Dynamite.
In other words, the real Elvis refused to stand up. But a smorgasbord of Elvis personae stood in for him, and the Emory University students and other concertgoers stood for ovations, giving the three-hour show their stomp of approval.
For those who remember an arrogant Costello cramming crowds into the Egyptian Ballroom at the Fox and hissing "I'm Not Angry" in an unfriendly fashion, the loopy, effusive Napoleon Dynamite personality comes as a surprise.
Dynamite and his "Spinning Songbook" were introduced last fall when Costello and the Attractions played a six-city tour that did not include Atlanta. In a crowd-pleasing finish to Monday's show, Costello donned his Dynamite top hat and unveiled the 10-foot Wheel of Fortune-style prop that lists 36 different Costello hits. (Included in the wheel is a "Country request number," the equivalent of double-zero in this musical roulette.)
Audience volunteers were invited onstage to spin the wheel and sip Gatorade in the "Society Lounge" (a few barstools set up next to the piano) or boogaloo in the bespangled go-go cage, while Costello played at the wheel's command.
Along with these Vanna-worthy hijinks, Costello tap danced in the aisles, showed slides of his holiday vacation and joked about Ted Turner and colorization. He behaved, in other words, quite unlike the bitter auteur whose once-chilly relationship with the audience was worsened by Costello's famous obnoxious opinions.
Then again, obnoxious opinions are the hallmark of Costello's songs, and the rocker's corrosive cleverness held its ground Monday against the glad-handy Napoleon. The evening's most compelling moment came with the tune "I Want You," which suggested an unrequited lust swollen into a murderous psychosis. Alone on stage, backing himself on acoustic guitar, Costello dominated the audience, bringing his voice down to an ominous, blood-curdling whisper, repeating "I want you, I want you."
Though he occasionally used recorded rhythm tracks, Costello ably carried the show with his own limited ability on guitar, his command of dynamics and pace and his ever-improving voice. "How can he lose his voice on an eight-city tour?" one listener wondered. Others expressed thanks that the rough vocal chords discouraged Costello's cloying fondness for ballad-style crooning.
High points of his set included "New Amsterdam," with a lining of John Lennon's "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" inserted in the middle. Costello also embellished "Radio Sweetheart" with most of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said."
He made a four-song medley out of the final encore, "Pump It Up," including references to Chuck Berry, Grandmaster Flash, Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the first verse of Prince's latest single, "Sign O' the Times."
Nick Lowe, Costello's former producer and author of his best-known anthem "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" joined Costello in singing that song as a first encore after opening Monday night's show.