Review of concert from 1999-10-05: Houston, TX, Aerial Theatre at Bayou Place
Houston Chronicle, 1999-10-06
- Brenda Gunter


Costello and friend spin old and new favorites into gold

Copyright 1999 Houston Chronicle

In a gutsy, dramatic performance, Elvis Costello gave Houston fans their money's worth during his Tuesday show with pianist Steve Nieve at Aerial Theater.

The amiable Englishman treated the packed room to no less than 36 songs culled from his lengthy catalog, including several from his latest disc, Painted From Memory, and its jazz counterpart, The Sweetest Punch. The 2 1/2-hour show included a couple of well-deserved standing ovations and at least five encores during the final hour.

Old and new material held equal appeal for the 30- and 40-ish crowd. During vintage tunes such as Red Shoes, Every Day I Write the Book and Alison, the hard-core young-male contingent bopped appreciatively to the driving beat. Hipsters snapped their fingers while couples swooned arm in arm to recent numbers such as What's Her Name Today? and Toledo.

The two kept props to a minimum, yet made the most of their stark surroundings. Armed with a Telecaster, Costello emerged on the pitch-black stage and whipped through a dramatic version of Alibi Factory in complete darkness. As the back-lighting intensified to silhouette the performer, Nieve (pronounced "naive") took his place at the grand piano for Man Out of Time and Talking in the Dark.

Attired in low-key black suits, the two traded barrelhouse piano rolls and twangy guitar riffs on This Year's Girl, Veronica and Indoor Fireworks. To keep things interesting, they threw in an occasional chestnut -- the classic torch song Fever, Van Morrison's Jackie Wilson Said -- and occasionally gave in to whimsy (Pads, Paws and Claws).

In recent years, rock performers have experimented with a number of formats to breathe new life into their tired old careers. Costello and Nieve deserve tremendous credit for finding one that works. While every band worth its greatest-hits album has gone unplugged in the '90s, few would be so bold as to go on the road with merely a piano and a guitar or two in tow.

With no band to rely upon, nor the trio of backup singers to which Costello often humorously alluded, there was little margin for error. No problem. Costello's guitar playing proved equal to Nieve's considerable prowess at the keyboard. Nieve's tasteful piano flourishes filled the gaps as Costello switched between acoustic guitars and a couple of hollow-body electrics. It was evident the two had invested plenty of time in working out the kinks. Their technical proficiency enabled them to move effortlessly between the old and the new.

The tight, edgy arrangements worked particularly well on the classics. Watching the Detectives has never sounded more urgent than it did here, stripped to its bare-bones, reggae-inflected essence.

Costello's voice, however, was the real stunner. His songwriting has always drawn a lot of acclaim, but his nasally whine was an acquired taste. Not anymore. He projected mightily on I Still Have That Other Girl, his warm vibrato filling the spacious hall. His voice lowered to a hoarse whisper in the seductive I Want You.

Turning off the mikes for the final number, Couldn't Call It Unexpected #4, Costello and Nieve relied on their own raw energy to serenade the hushed crowd.

A few minutes before that, on the reflective 45, written on his last birthday, Costello wrapped his husky vocals around the double entendres that also referred to the extinction of vinyl: But the words are a mystery/Till I turn it down to 33.

Maturity has only strengthened Costello as a songwriter and musician. In this validating performance, perhaps one of the best Houston shows of the year, he wore it like a badge of honor.