Review of concert at 1999-06-11: Milwaukee, WI, Riverside Theatre
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1999-06-12
- John M. Gilbertson


Minimalism reveals Costello's brilliance

By Jon M. Gilbertson
Special to the Journal Sentinel
Last Updated: June 12, 1999

Touring must be useful for Elvis Costello, and not just because the modern tour grants a license to print money.

The idle hours on buses and planes, or at sound checks, probably allow him to map out the next phase of his career. Perhaps all those collaborations with gifted musicians, and those explorations of everything from country to classical quartet, resulted from periods of killing time on the road.

After spending too much of that time not playing Milwaukee, Costello returned Friday night to pack the Riverside Theatre, and he continued the roll he's been on lately. Bringing along keyboardist Steve Nieve - possibly the most talented of the Attractions, Costello's regularly amazing backing band - but no one else, he spent well over two hours reminding the crowd of his brilliance.

Which is not the way he would have put it, nor was that implicit in his presentation. Although Costello strapped on an electric guitar late in the set, he generally stuck to acoustic, and apart from a brief solo segment, he let Nieve color in the spaces around his strumming. Nieve, resembling a cross between dignified orchestra pianist and rumpled rock sideman, added an essential melodic aspect, and the ability to move from key-pounding frenzy to elegant precision.

Considering the breadth of Costello's catalog, this was important. Of course, he touched upon his recent partnership with uber-songwriter Burt Bacharach, the Grammy-winning "Painted From Memory." Although ornate songs such as "In the Darkest Place" and "Toledo" lacked the lushness of the album versions, the spare rendering brought out a slightly stronger emotional potential.

Indeed, Costello sang mightily, using a third-rate voice in a first-rate way, capturing more feeling and meaning in a cracked note or a pause than Shania Twain can muster over an entire album. Jumping from the sad splendor of "The Long Honeymoon" to the short, sharp shocks of "Little Triggers" and the old-fashioned country-pop of "Our Little Angel" and "Radio Sweetheart," he used a supposedly limited range to evoke a varied palette of shadings and subtleties.

It gradually became clear that Costello and Nieve had hit upon something with the piano-and-guitar setup: a kind of unity. The songs of a diverse lifetime all bore the same minimalism, yet each was also different. After three encores, including a heartbreaking rendition of Charles Aznavour's "She," the intensely avid crowd obviously hadn't wearied of the two-man concept.

And why should they? Costello might be idle on the way to shows, but on stage, his next move is almost always worth watching, or hearing.
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on June 13, 1999.

Copyright 1999, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. All rights reserved.