After two years drifting in the uncharted post-New Wave waters, Elvis Costello reappeared from the mist Saturday night. Still dressed all in black, this wasn't Declan, it was Elvis.
He was no less angry, thoughtful or perplexing than when he went away. But this time, he was alone.
Stripped of the Attractions, both on his recent LP Spike and now on a solo acoustic tour, Costello played to the soldout crowd at Northwestern University's McGaw Hall as though he were in a small club-for better and for worse. During what was actually a concert in three acts, Costello played grand actor-moving from being impassioned, to dazzling to truly confusing and finally sliding into the realm of tedium.
As a songwriter, Costello rivals any of the decade's best, and probably takes second only to Bob Dylan (before the conversion) for his consistent and prolific outpouring of anger, fear, resentment, love and, above all, dark social-political cynicism. So, it wasn't that surprising when "Accidents Will Happen," a driving and melodic cut from 1979's highly political Armed Forces LP, was chosen as the first song for the final performance of Costello's spring tour.
Without the backing of a band, Costello's passion and tough, sure-footed vocals rose above his acoustic guitar, blanketing the basketball stadium with "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" (from Spike), as though he was in a local tavern; Costello pounded out the lyrics' story of self-realization with chillingly painful glee and a rageful guitar thrashing.
Through "God's Comic," a cocktail shuffle about a very weird meeting with God, Costello retained an edge, breaking in the song's middle for a cheeky dialogue with the crowd. And it remained as interesting throughout the set.
So, you say, "what's with all the negative stuff at the beginning if you liked it so much?"
After a solo encore, Costello brought show-opener and producer/genius Nick Lowe back on stage for the evening's second act. After shooting through two covers from Elvis Presley's Memphis days, they added a version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" that could've melted steel.
The two men shook hands, waved to the crowd, said goodnight and were gone.
A third of the college-age crowd had already started to head for the doors when the strange howlings began to shake the stadium. Accompanied by a horror film soundtrack, the howling got louder and louder until he arrived.
No, it wasn't Elvis Costello, or Declan McManus. It was Monsignor Napoleon Dynamite, the psuedo-character Costello created on the Blood & Chocolate LP. Dressed in a cheesy multicolor blazer and carrying a devil's pitchfork, his Eminency strolled the stage as members of the crowd were brought to him by a fuzzy-suited "wolfman."
While cute at first, this third act of the show lost air quickly and included a disappointing, throw-away version of "Alison."
Given the show's length-more than two hours-and the range Costello displayed as a performer, it was as good as any show that has recently ambled through the area.
The only problem is, Elvis Costello is better than the rest of those guys. On Saturday night, he didn't show it.