In terms of quirkiness, few performers can match the schizophrenically high quality of Elvis Costello's musical output over the past decade. David Bowie may be rock music's reigning chameleon, but he hasn't changed musical skins nearly as prolifically as Costello, nee Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus.
Costello brought his thoroughly unique solo roadshow to a sold-out Open Air Theatre Saturday and it was, as they say in show business, pure Elvis. Of course, this is coming from the man who, as an established act, once played Hollywood High School. He also is not averse to releasing albums twice a year, dabbling in country, soul and Gershwin-esque pop — wherever his whim may take him. Remember, this is new wave's original angry young man.
No longer a young man, as reflected in the added girth of his body, Costello is also probably less angry than when he burst onto the stagnating late-'70s music scene with his classic LPs, My Aim is True and This Year's Model. Yet, he still has a lot of bite left in him.
Sans his longtime backup band, the Attractions, for this abbreviated tour, Costello took the sparse stage dressed in a gold jacket over black slacks clutching an acoustic guitar. It would be an evening of song, delivered in troubadour fashion.
Although suffering from a dangerously sore throat, Costello didn't let the malady deter his performance, and he delivered it with almost puckish enthusiasm.
"I'm here against my doctor's advice," he declared to the capacity crowd. "But fuck it. What does he know? Welcome to my world."
From then on it was, as he proclaimed, a "trip around the world," with such verbally challenging songs as "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," "Green Shirt," "Heathen Town," and "Uncomplicated," and a slide show of various nondescript locations, punctuated by Costello's barbed narration.
Yet, for all the quirks — and Costello's deteriorating voice —the songs shone through remarkably well.
"New Amsterdam," with an interlude of Lennon/ McCartney's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," brought on new life compared to the terse version on Get Happy. And "American Without Tears," from King of America, oozed even more poignancy than the LP's version.
After a duet with opening act Nick Lowe on "What's So Funny? (About Peace, Love and Understanding)," the show took on a bizarre twist. And it also revealed a playfulness that many don't realize Elvis Costello has.
Coming out as alter-ego Napoleon Dynamite, Costello donned a top hat and played the ultimate ringleader, rivaling Pat Sajak. And what a circus it was.
Replete with "Society Lounge" and the "Zak Starkey Memorial Drumset," the stage gave way to the centerpiece — the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook." Introduced during last fall's acclaimed multi-night stands in Los Angeles and New York, the giant wheel of fortune device offered fans a chance to spin the wheel, with Costello performing the winning tune. Of course, he wasn't opposed to nudging the wheel a bit to a song he preferred to play.
"If you can't cheat in San Diego, where can you cheat?" he shrugged.
But after he performed "Everyday I Write the Book," "Alison," "Watching the Detectives," "Girls Talk" and "Pump it Up," one could hardly feel cheated. In fact, it was more of a privilege. How often do you get a chance to see a chameleon changing colors, and the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook?" And who is better-suited to pull it off than Elvis Costello?