Evanston, Ill. — It was billed as a solo show, but Elvis Costello showed up at Northwestern University's Welsh-Ryan Arena with an army of famous names in tow.
Talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera came first, followed by novelists Jackie Collins and Bret Easton Ellis, God and the Brady Bunch. One by one, Costello used them as springboards into hilarious free-form stories and one-liners. It was a comic triumph, especially when you stop to consider that Costello is not a comic.
For the uninitiated, the British-born Costello is one of rock's boldest artists. A chameleonic musician and singer, Costello writes some of the most startling verse ever heard by rock audiences. But he used his current US tour, which ended Saturday night in Evanston, to evolve into a stand-up comedian.
It was certainly not what his fans were expecting. They came to hear Costello's punk rock classics, soul-wrenching ballads and songs from Spike, his 12th and latest LP. And Costello delivered on all counts during the two-hour show.
But by taking the acid wit he uses to write lyrics and converting it into impromptu comic monologs between songs, Costello turned what might have been a good show into a stunning one.
"God's Comic," the tale of a drunken priest's life-after-death experiences, is one of Costello's oddest — and funniest — songs. But the rambling aside it spawned was equally inspired. Before he was finished, Costello had delivered a riotous interpretation of heaven, torn Rivera and Ellis to shreds, and set the tone for the rest of the evening. The show grew more wicked with each new story.
In place of smoke machines, special effects and megabucks lighting rigs, Costello rolled out a single prop Saturday, "The Broken Heart of Unknown Deadly Sins." During the encore, fans came onstage, pulled a dagger out of the mammoth heart, read the sin on it ("The Sin of Styrofoam," "The Sin of 'Doing Lunch'") and commanded Costello to play their favorite song.
As silly as it was, the "Broken Heart" segment resulted In some of Costello's best-loved tunes ("Allison" and "Pump It Up," done hip-hop style), as well as gems from Spike. But the concert's most provocative music came earlier as Costello freewheeled his way through a slew of cover versions.
His own "American Without Tears" evolved into a passionate remake of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." Van Morrison's "Jack Wilson Said" turned into a joyful call-and-response with the audience, and opening act Nick Lowe joined the singer in Everly Brothers-styled harmonies during Elvis Presley's "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame."
Costello gave a nod to his punk origins with his 1977 single "Watching the Detectives." But even if he's long since outgrown the angry-young-punk label, he hasn't mellowed a bit. Costello punctuated ballads with blood-curdling howls and attacked his acoustic guitar with such fervor that he broke three strings in less than an hour.
As vicious and funny as he was, Costello left the most lasting impression with his subtle mastery of American music. Interpreting blues (Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms"), rhythm and blues (Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone") or country (his own "Indoor Fireworks"), Costello proved that soul has no geographical boundaries.