It takes a lot of guts to step onto a stage — all alone — and perform for two hours in front of 3,787 people. But Elvis Costello did just that at Duquesne University's A.J. Palumbo Center Wednesday night, and he pulled it off without a single dull moment.
The cheeky, geeky guy who took the name of a legend when he stormed onto the rock scene 12 years ago delivered more than 20 songs — from oldest to newest — with punch, power, pathos, and above all, finesse.
Wearing an acoustic guitar scarred from his impassioned strumming, Costello began with a set of tunes that included "Accidents will Happen," "Green Shirt," "Mystery Dance," "The Big Light" and "Watching the Detectives," interlaced with his sarcastic stage patter. (Once characterized as "the man who put the droll in rock and roll," Elvis let the wit and irony so prevalent in his lyrics come through in his storytelling as well.)
He introduced the song, "God's Comic," from his new album, Spike, as "an interview between God and Geraldo Riviera." Showing off his pop culture knowledge and wry humor, he launched into an imitation of Geraldo's interview with Charles Manson before delivering the tune, a sad tale of a not-so-pure priest meeting his maker.
Other tunes from the new album included "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and "Veronica," both emotional ballads that fittingly displayed his vocal ability. But a concert highlight came when Costello sat down to concentrate on his chordwork and performed "Baby Plays Around," a torchy melody about infidelity written by his wife, Call O'Riordan.
He followed that with "New Amsterdam," during which he segued into The Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." Frequently throwing in bits of other artist's tunes, Costello used "Radio Sweetheart" to give a nod to Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said."
Like well-told stories, Costello's songs built to musical climaxes, as in "Pads, Paws and Claws," one of two Spike songs co-written with "this other left-handed guy," Paul McCartney. Showing off the angry, biting lyricism he's known for, Costello spat out this tune about a woman like "a feline tormentor."
"Let Him Dangle," another of the six Spike tunes he performed, is another harsh social comment about capital punishment, with an irresistible hook,
From his King of America LP, he sang the confessional "Brilliant Mistake," then delivered another highlight from the same album, the Animals' cover, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
Twanging his Fender and belting the lyrics, Costello seemed to sum up the core of his career with the plaintive, emotional plea contained in the song's chorus.
With his producer/partner Nick Lowe, who also opened the show, Costello performed a tune "by this other guy called Elvis" — "His Latest Flame." Their pretty harmonies also complemented one of Costello's most popular songs, the Lowe composition, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
For the last part of the show, the request segment, Costello took on the persona of "Msgr. Napoleon Dynamite," the trident-toting keeper of "the broken heart of … deadly sins." Wearing a crushed velvet dinner jacket, he had a "werewolf" drag women onstage to pick sins from a large, satin heart. The sins, dripping of sarcasm, included "awesomeness." "sobriety" and "architecture" (the latter a possible zing at Prince Charles, who's not a fan of British buildings).
The requests included "Pump It Up," which the monsignor delivered in style. With a recorded drum machine producing an insistent, anvil-like backbeat, Costello turned up the revert and pumped, in his most rocking moment of the night. He followed that with the heavy, melancholy piano tune, "Almost Blue." Then came "Oliver's Army," which slipped into "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."
Saving the best for last. Costello performed "Alison," possibly one of the prettiest songs ever composed by a pop musician. A tune that would be tough to follow up in concert, it left a permanent impression of the magnitude of talent contained behind the horn-rims of this enigmatic entertainer.