In the late 1970s, Elvis Costello used to play extremely short sets to annoy the crowd. He also used to increase the speaker feedback volume so ticketholders would exit the venue.
But, as lucidly shown on Wednesday night, Costello shed his viper skin and has become a pleasant concert attraction.
He traded his early lyrical angst and stage presence for humor and well-rounded entertainment at the A.J. Palumbo Center. The concert was the largest event during the academic year at Duquesne.
Opening the show was one of the greatest producers/bassists of the rock era, Nick Lowe, who is also Costello's close friend and former producer. "The Jesus of Cool" served up a flat but powerful voice and with his spiked, silvery hair resembling either George C. Scott or an aging version of The Moody Blues Justin Hayward.
On acoustic guitar, Lowe performed notables such as the bluesy "Half a Boy, Half a Man," the rock-a-billy "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)," and his only Top 40 hit (position 12 in 1979), "Cruel to Be Kind." "This is a song I made a ton of money from," he joked. "And I spent it about as fast as it stayed on the charts." The single lasted 10 weeks on the Top-40.
Lowe accompanied himself on a Fender bass guitar with a blue-infected harmony that pounded an unwavering rhythm across concertgoers' chests. His fingers were like legs of a prowling spider on the bass's neck.
Upon the completion of each song, the tide of audience acceptance increased.
Then Costello jogged onto the stage.
With a deep inhale, he broke into "Accidents Will Happen," a song to which Blondie replied with "Accidents Never Happen." Costello stood like a man naked under the poor lighting that occasionally cast him in the shadows.
Costello had only acoustic and electric guitars, a baby grand piano and his voice to command the audience.
He sang like a potent high school vocalist reaching puberty, yet reaching all the notes and remaining in tune throughout the show. At times, his young rebelliousness would emerge, but he seems to have found a great sense for business in not angering the audience.
During his first set, Costello worked on the acoustic guitar. He changed the feel of "Watching the Detectives" by shouting its desperate lines in a folky manner instead of with a reggae beat.
He also strummed songs from Spike, his latest collection: "Let Him Dangle," "God's Comic," and the first single, "Veronica."
These compositions never missed Spike's intricate instrumentation as Costello pounded the strings which frequently broke soulfully and simply.
On "God's Comic," filled with jazz chords, Napoleon Dynamite, who probably is Donnie Iris and Buddy Holly's lost brother, told a story of Geraldo Rivera interviewing God as he did Charles Manson. "So you think you're tough," he told God. In addition, Costello satirized best-selling novels by Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins.
For the next set, Lowe returned to the stage with bass in hand and voice primed to join the headliner in an obscure Elvis Presley tune and a top-flight Costello number "(What's So Funny bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," written by Lowe. The two harmonized well and played the song at half tempo which thwarted the immediacy of the words, yet it was a credible version.
In what appeared to be Costello's fourth set, he was more theatrical. Roadies carted out a huge, red heart with a crack down it's middle onto the stage. "It's made of real satin, not imitation rubbish," he said.
He transformed into Monsignor Dynamite who made members of the audience atone for sin's names on flags rolled up in the heart's pockets.
Randomly picked by a werewolf, concertgoers reached for a flag, atoned for that sin, and requested a song. The sins included sobriety, awesomeness and architecture.
Pittsburgh is guilty of the last vice: poor building design. The audience did not agree, and created a low rumble of booing.
The numbers requested: "(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes," "Pump It Up," "Oliver's Army," "Almost Blue," and the clincher, "Alison."
Each was performed at the peak of emotion and exactness except "Pump It Up" in which Costello attempted to achieve a half tempo, psychedelic style and subsequently failed. In this case, adhering to the original recording would have have been best.
Crowd-pleasing was evident since he fumbled the racial slur in "Oliver's Army."
In the midst of some pieces, Costello would dive into classic rock melodies such as "Jackie Wilson Said" (Van Morrison), "The Last Train to Clarksville" (The Monkees), and "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" (The Beatles). These selections breathed freshness into his set.
Although he did not play his only top-40 hit, "Everyday I Write the Book," and the ever-popular "Only Flame in Town," Costello did pick among the audience's favorites such as "Alison," a song covered by Linda Ronstadt, which with his passion proved he is an enduring performer.
Except for the inadequate and underdeveloped lighting, the concert at the Palumbo Center showed that he can energize a crowd, nix a backing band and offer a unique concert experience by revealing his vulnerable and witty parts. Because the music pumping through the speakers was not ear-pounding, the acoustics of the Center were palatable.
Costello's appearance as solo artist was not better or worse than if he was supported by a backing band, only different.
And the road less traveled sometimes makes all the difference.