Review of Concert at Radio City Music Hall on 1998-10-13
The Guardian, 1998-10-15
- Michael Ellison

The night Elvis Costello turned into his dad

Michael Ellison, in New York, sees the old punk schmooze with Burt Bacharach

The elderly, unnaturally lithe American gent and the portly Anglo-Irishman in the tuxedo made an unlikely couple on the Radio City stage in front of a 24-piece band that they insisted on calling an orchestra. Unlikely, that is, until you consider that Burt Bacharach has been doing this forever and that a quick canter back through Elvis Costello's career could lead you to the conclusion that he was bound to end up here. In short, Costello has turned into his dad.

Bacharach, the grand old man of classic sixties pop songwriting, and Costello, the primary musical chameleon of his times, got together two years ago to write God Give Me Strength for the Allison Anders film Grace Of My Heart. They were sufficiently impressed with each other to take it further, to the new album Painted From Memory.

Just how seriously they take the enterprise can be gauged by the number of interviews they have granted to a hugely supportive American media. Just how warmly they were received can be gauged by the standing ovation which greeted them even before the curtain went up. This was an audience that would have risen to its feet if the ice-cream vendors had wandered on stage.

On the face of it, the 5,000-seater Radio City might have seemed a rather ambitious venue for the rasping born-again crooner and his hyperactive piano player. But Bacharach is enjoying the same sort of renewed celebrity, in New York at least, as he did in Britain a couple of years ago when he was rehabilitated as a hero of the easy-listening revival.

But with a voice like Costello's to the fore, this could never be properly classified as easy on the ear, one moment coasting comfortably through his middle-range, the next sandpapering the high notes.

Holding centre-stage like a slightly sleazy bingo caller - Costello might have called 'clickety-click, 66' at any moment - the genre tourist seemed perfectly at ease with his latest role, slipping a hand blithely into a pocket, grasping the microphone stand and letting out only one rock-world 'hey' throughout the two-hour set.

It was split into four parts; the first and last sections, given over to songs they have written together, flanked sets in which Burt offered up his greatest hits - his creaky voice embracing a couple of them - and Elvis selected some of his more appropriate favourites. Inevitably, a number of the new, less familiar, songs suffered alongside the stronger moments from the back catalogues.

If Costello was disappointed that one of the biggest cheers of the evening went up for the old standby Alison, he didn't show it. But if there was a spell in the evening which jarred it was his Burt-free slice of the action, fine in its own right but a little incongruous in the context of the collaboration. Somehow Veronica and Accidents Will Happen seemed to have wandered in from a different performance.

At 70, Bacharach is five years older than the magnificent art deco Radio City, but his vintage was hardly apparent as he 'conducted' the string section behind him with a flap of the wrist over his left shoulder, sprang from his seat or inspected the ground as if he was trying to locate a stray dime. At first his selection of songs from the movies seemed to benefit little from a live setting but that perception soon gave way to little chuckles of recognition as I Say A Little Prayer followed Walk On By followed Alfie.

Over more than 20 years Costello has crafted pop, R&B, country, folk, neo-classical and now mainstream big-band ballads, which takes him back home to where the family McManus started, with Elvis's father Ross singing in the Joe Loss Orchestra. It is more likely that he is merely out for a stroll with the idiom rather than embarking on something more lasting, but so what? Only one question must now be put to Bacharach and Costello. Do You Know The Way To San Jose? Either way, they didn't play it.
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc.1998