Review of concert at Capitol Theatre, Sydney, 1999-01-27
- Phil Stafford

363x400 (28K)
Two great communicators of our age

When Elvis Met Tony

by Phil Stafford

THEY WERE TWO OF THE HOTTEST TICKETS in Sydney last week, though on face value it would normally be impossible to manufacture a reason to mention them in the same breath, let alone the same sentence. Yet Elvis Costello, the angry young man turned serious, middle-aged crooner, and Tony Bennett - the only jazz singer to ever command commensurate respect as a pop vocalist - may have more in common than even they realise.

And that's not just because Costello appears on the recently released retrospective album, The Essential Tony Bennett, singing a duet with his elder mentor on Gershwin's They Can't Take That Away From Me. Costello, 44, the son of a big-band singer, grew up in a household steeped in the same music that shaped Bennett's own career: jazz, swing, rhythm and blues, show tunes, movie music and plain, unabashed white pop schmaltz. And while on his early records Costello went out of his way to deny those early influences - as the young and wilfully rebellious will do - they emerged by osmosis as he grew to musical maturity.

Somehow the baroque excesses of Sydney's lovingly refurbished Capitol Theatre suit this softer, saner, more studiously musical, midlife Elvis. On the back of his most recent album, a collaboration with '60s lounge-pop maestro Burt Bacharach, Costello is touring as a double act with pianist Steve Nieve, from his longtime on-again, off-again band, the Attractions. The first time they played here, just over 20 years ago, a riot ensued when Costello led the band off after barely 50 minutes - much of it spent with his back to the audience - of bile-drenched rock'n'roll. No doubt inflamed by the prev ailing punk attitude of the time, Costello's aggression provoked like reaction; when no encore was forthcoming, punters ripped out seats and demanded a refund.

The irony of the episode was that Costello had simply run out of songs, having released just two albums at the time. No such problem this time, of course-with at least 20 more now under his belt, the hard part was which songs to leave out. A full two hours and 20 minutes later, no part of the catalogue remained unrepresented. More importantly, the sheer craft and facility of his songwriting had been laid bare with just his own skeletal guitar and Nieve's spectral keyboards as accompaniment, Costello's voice was free to roam across the often difficult emotional terrain of his songs. While confessing to some hoarseness on the night, even he would admit to owning a less than brilliant singing voice - when compared to a magnificent vocal instrument such as Tony Bennett's - but he's evolved into one hell of a singer, and there is a big difference.

He's aided in this by the fact that as a Iyricist, Costello is a lot less wordy and selfconsciously literate than he used to be. The songs on Painted From Memory - his collaboration with Bacharach, whose deceptively simplistic arrangements lend themselves to verbal minimalism - draw out the pure vocalist in Costello, as opposed to the wit and the word-player. Not that he's eschewed those skills entirely, by any means - they're now more part of the medium than the message.

Yet as the back-catalogue rolled out, you realised you were in the presence of one of this century's most gifted songwriters, one who now has the performance skills to match. It's as if in the fuller bloom of midlife, Costello has come of age as one of the great interpreters of the popular song - regardless of the fact that they're all his own. With that comes a certain humility, which he exemplified by referencing some of his peers - Talking in the Dark tailed off into The Kinks' Dead End Street, and a reverent version of The Beatles' You've Got to Hide Your Love Away seguéd into his own Radio Sweetheart, which in turn quoted from Van Morrison's Jackie Wilson Said. Debts duly acknowledged and paid in part, if not necessarily in full.

At the grand old age of 72, Tony Bennett's still paying his dues. This Australian tour marks his 50th year in showbusiness, and the man's probably more popular than he's ever been - across an even wider demographic than Costello who, after all, is young enough to be his son. The only man on stage tonight older than Bennett is his pianist Ralph Sharon, who's been with him since 1957 - almost as long as Costello has been alive.

He might not write the songs, but Bennett's been singing them for long enough to have made them his own. He saunters on stage almost unnoticed at the Star City Lyric Theatre, stepping out of the shadows in an immaculate suit as the spotlight settles first on Sharon's keyboard. Appropriately, the pair launch into The Best is Yet to Come, ivories and pipes in effortless tandem until Bennett finishes the song a cappella. Enter the rest of the Ralph Sharon Quartet, an outfit equally at home with the subtle kinetics of jazz, finger-popping swing or the saccharine swell of classic pop.

We may be in a casino venue, but this is no cheap Vegas lounge act milking the dregs of a once great career. Bennett's cachet is hipper than ever since tapping a new generation of younger listeners with his MTV Unplugged album in 1994. The phrasing, mike technique and distinctive timbre are in as fine a shape as the man himself, standing tall, cracking wise and even executing the odd 360-degree spin without missing a beat. The patter is similarly smooth, unforced and damn near sincere for a man who's been using some of these same old lines since 1949 - there are heartfelt dedications to Billie Holiday, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Count Basie and the Duke, even Barbra Streisand (Bennett's version of People [Who Need People] almost allows you forgive hers).

While the set list is a virtual history of popular music, in less capable hands it could be the stuff of some clapped-out, low-rent club act. But it's Bennett's skill as an interpreter of songs - no matter how banal - that shuffles his cards to the top of the pack. Like Costello, it's his faith in the material and his ability to sell it that wins the hand, and ultimately the game.

What they had most in common, as it turned out, was probably pure coincidence. Both men finished their shows by walking away from the microphone and singing directly to the audience from the lip of the stage - the ultimate intimate act of live performance, stripping away the artifice to forge a real connection. This was raw communication, in both cases the aim as true as it gets.