Pop Go Costello And Bacharach Onstage

New-wave pioneer and ’60s-pop tunesmith open their tour at Radio City Music Hall. Contributing Editor Frank Tortorici reports

NEW YORK – As the lights went down in Radio City Music Hall Tuesday night, a familiar voice rang out from behind the red curtain.

But when the curtain rose, the familiar voice coming from none other than Elvis Costello somehow seemed out of place, as he stood in his tuxedo before a large orchestra.

Costello was gently crooning the famous lyrics to a classic ’60s tune, ‘Baby It’s You’. That song was written by his new partner in pop, Burt Bacharach – who, not coincidentally, was leading the ensemble. It was a fitting beginning for an evening that posed interesting, unlimited and potentially frightening possibilities for these artists.

When you mix paint, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. But when you combine musicians of such diverse backgrounds as the genre-jumping Costello and the famed pop-composer Bacharach – who wrote such ’60s hits as ‘Walk On By’, ‘Alfie’, ‘Message to Michael’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ – there’s no telling what can happen.

The anticipation of what would come of the live mixture colored the mood of the capacity crowd assembled at the venerable hall. Heightening the anticipation was that this was the opening night of the pair’s mini-tour in support of their just-released collaborative album, Painted From Memory.

“I haven’t heard the album, so I have no expectations,” said thirtysomething Leslie Oster of Pennsylvania. “I can only imagine magic with these two.”

Before playing any songs from the new disc, the 30-piece orchestra launched into another old and familiar number, ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love’. Costello punched the air, punctuating the music that filled the room.

The song, a very un-Costello-like tune, is the kind of schmaltz that made the talented Bacharach unfashionable for years before his recent career renaissance. To see normally cool Costello moving to the melody with such abandon was a strange and unforgettable sight.

Still, it didn’t seem right. While Bacharach and Costello did work magic Tuesday on a few of the better tracks from Painted From Memory, it was an unsettling sight to see Costello, one of rock’s original punks, tapping his shiny shoes and snapping his fingers like some kind of modern-day Frank Sinatra.

The first cut from the new album was ‘Toledo’, a song that further yanked Costello from his rock-pop element. The stocky rocker stood awkwardly with his hand in his pocket, looking every inch the lounge performer as he addressed the crowd in song.

“There were no magic spells … they just don’t seem right … we’re like day and night,” Costello sang in the new tune ‘Such Unlikely Lovers’. He could have easily been talking about himself and Bacharach. It was hard to accept, Costello stretching for the high notes, as he stood in front of Bacharach, who, in his classic style, easily pulled melodies from his piano and filled it all out with over-the-top orchestration.

Could this be the same angry Costello who croaked his way through the raunchy new-wave hit ‘Watching the Detectives’ off his debut My Aim Is True? Was this the same guy who was once known for speaking his mind about anything and getting into scraps in pubs?

Song after sad song followed from the duet album, including ‘This House Is Empty Now’ and ‘Tears at the Birthday Party’. But neither number showcased either man’s strengths – not the twisted, tormented lyrics that made Costello famous nor the breezy, jingle-pop that Bacharach purveyed on his biggest hits.

It all sounded OK, but the stars appeared tentative and there was little that seemed spontaneous.

Bacharach’s solo spot highlighted his movie tunes, but he relied on backup singers for the vocals. When he sang lead on ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’, from the 1969 hit movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he sounded as if he were suffering from laryngitis. There was no evidence of the assured voice he had showcased earlier this year on the TNT cable-TV special in his honor.

Costello’s old Attractions-mate Steve Nieve sat in for most of the night on keyboards. Nieve accompanied his boss for the bespectacled rocker’s “solo” segment, during which Costello strapped on an acoustic guitar and returned to form.

“We have some new friends to play [these songs] along with,” Costello said, referring to the orchestra, as he introduced Nieve-arranged renditions of such classics of his own as ‘Accidents Will Happen’ and ‘Veronica’. The versions brilliantly used the orchestra’s horns and strings.

The verve that Costello brought to these old tunes was contagious, and the mostly baby-boomer crowd got louder.

Costello seemed to loosen up, and he repeatedly tugged at his bow tie as if to indicate that he himself felt uncomfortable performing these songs – including two of his biggest hits, ‘Almost Blue’ and a plugged-in ‘Alison’ – in formal attire.

Fortunately, the show didn’t lose momentum when Bacharach returned, because the pair saved the new album’s strongest numbers for the end.

The CD’s opening cut, ‘In the Darkest Place’, had the snap that Bacharach brought to the smashes he wrote for Dionne Warwick in the ’60s. ‘The Sweetest Punch’, with lyrics that brought out Costello’s trademark pugnacity, lived up to its title.

The night ended on a high note with the moving ‘God Give Me Strength’, the writing of which initially brought the men together a few years ago when they were asked to compose a song for the soundtrack to the film Grace of My Heart.

And for a few minutes, at least, it seemed as if they had always been a team.

© Frank Tortorici, 15 October 1998

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