When Elvis Costello assumed Presley's weighty moniker back in 1977, it was done as a defiant, attention-getting joke.
Despite the unbreachable difference between the two performers, Costello has since proved a worthy heir to the name. When Presley was starting out, rock was a boundless, challenging frontier. Costello is one of very few artists today who remembers that it still can be.
Costello has taken several chances in his career to keep his music fresh. Starting as a wild-card misfit in England's punk scene, he and his band, the Attractions, have made successful forays into balladry, Nashville country and soul music. Concert audiences haven't always been as swift as Costello in accepting his musical changes, but the Attractions formidable talents have always been able to bludgeon the fans into submission.
Tuesday night, Costello took his biggest gamble yet by appearing sans band in a solo concert. He introduced himself as Mr. Elvis Costello and his Guitar Army and accompanied his singing on acoustic and electric guitars and grand and electric pianos.
In a feat few established solo artists could match, Costello held the amphitheater audience spellbound through a marathon 37-song performance that rated four encore calls.
His set included familiar Costello standards like "Alison," and "Mystery Dance"; other writers' tunes; and six new songs which Costello claimed would be out on an LP titled Goodbye, President Reagan.
Notable were "Worthless Thing," a sarcastic piece about video, and "Inch By Inch," a jarring, obsessive love song.
Costello's intense vocals and authoritative rhythm playing easily carried such Attraction's show pieces as "New Lace Sleeves," and "Riot Act."
Even the hit "Everyday I Write The Book" — given a full soul-revue rendering last year with horns and backup singers — lost little of its appeal. Costello wasn't born with one of the world's great voices, but he has worked it into a remarkably expressive instrument, rich in shadings and inflections.
His solid 20-song set could have stood on its own, but the real delights came in the 17 encore numbers.
Costello did a slow, soulful version of "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" at the grand piano, and the emotive anti-war "Shipbuilding" on the Wurlitzer electric. His ballad style further served on Dylan's "I Threw It All Away" and the Beatles' "Yes It Is."
Turning the show into a mini-fest of eccentric songwriters, Costello traded verses with John Hiatt on Hiatt's "She loves The Jerk" during his second encore, and brought T Bone Burnette out in the third to duet on George Jones' "We're Ragged But Right," Bobby Charles' "Tennessee Blues," and the Byrds' "So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star."
Burnette opened the evening with a 14-song solo set which — while excellent — couldn't help but be overshadowed by Costello's. The lanky Texan humorized and moralized on songs ranging from a singalong version of "King Of The Road" to the unreleased "My Life And The Women Who Lived It." Burnette also used the occasion to announce his candidacy for president, saying: "I figured to pick up the ZZ Top spillover."