It was one of those "you should have been there" nights. Elvis Costello snuck into town Tuesday for a solo concert — no advertising, no band and no fear of spontaneity — at Georgetown University's sold-out, 3,000-capacity McDonough Gymnasium and performed more than 30 songs in an intimate, inventive, impassioned 2½-hour set of indoor fireworks.
Georgetown was an appropriate venue for the prolifically literate Costello, the English major's rock idol, who brought along with him a graying Nick Lowe, his frequent producer, as his charming opening act. The two Englishmen took traditional American musical styles — folk, R&B, country, rock — and fed the recharged hybrid back to an intelligence-starved audience.
The minimalism of the "Almost Alone" evening put the focus on Costello the songwriter. And few rock song books could survive naked under the spotlight like this. But Costello's cleverly worded, memorably melodic songs, often clothed on record in baroque arrangements, were actually enhanced, showing Costello to be a once-burned romantic and a jaundiced but still hopeful observer of the world — his opening words were "I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused" from "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."
With a small color TV behind him flickering images of baseball and evangelists, the troubadour Costello, who has evolved from new-wave nerd to rock raconteur, employed only an array of acoustic guitars and a fine-grained voice that stretched, shook and squeezed the emotion out of notes. Costello delivered songs such as "Suit of Lights" and "Brilliant Mistake" like a man with something to prove (the show followed reports that he has been dropped by Columbia Records).
One of the program's most striking elements was the way Costello incorporated other people's songs into his own, often illuminating his compositions or revealing a source of inspiration. "Uncomplicated" enveloped Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," and "New Amsterdam" opened to reveal the Beatles' "Hide Your Love Away." Costello's first single, "Radio Sweetheart," had a surprise inside — Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," with the audience supplying the exuberant scat chorus. And a harrowing "I Want You," a Spartan epic about jealous passion, harbored "Comedians," one of Costello's most effective short-story songs. Concentrating on his most recent albums, Costello inventively reinterpreted familiar numbers — he expanded "American Without Tears" like a sprawling Dickensian novel, interrupting the song to ask, "Have you ever wondered what happens to people in a song after the song is over? This is worrying to songwriters," just after he had placed one of the song's characters in turbulent South America.
At the 1½-hour point, Costello and Lowe did a sincerely '60s-style duet, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Then Costello metamorphosed into Professor Napoleon Dynamite, host of a riotous game show lampoon. The ebulliently comical Dynamite invited audience members to join him onstage to spin the previously hidden "Spectacular Spinning Songbook," a giant flashing wheel of 36 Costello titles. One pair spun up a medley of "People's Limousine," "Oliver's Army" and an elegiac "Peace in Our Time," which Costello was obviously delighted to perform so close to the White House.
Dynamite invited a woman from the audience to play a junior drum kit for "Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind" and "Alison," even allowing her a drum solo, while the winning spinning couple prom-danced in a silver go-go cage.
After one more spin turned up "Shot With His Own Gun" (on piano) and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (on terse and ragged electric guitar), Costello manipulated the wheel slightly — "If you can't cheat in Washington, D.C., where can you cheat?" — to finish with his preferred set-closer "Pump It Up," which he delivered with a beat box's vaguely go-go rhythm and eerie inserts from Prince's "Sign o' the Times" and Grandmaster Flash's "The Message."