Thursday October 15 9:23 AM EDT
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach (Radio City Music Hall; 5,986 capacity; $77 top)
By David Sprague
NEW YORK (Variety) - Optimists often say that pop music doesn't have to aim for the lowest common denominator to connect with a large audience, but few artists seem willing to put that theory to the test.
At their much-anticipated tour kickoff, however, Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that smart, sophisticated pop music still has the power to enthrall.
The pair -- accompanied by a 26-piece orchestra and four outstanding background singers -- played off each other with remarkable comfort, given that this was the first full-scale performance they'd ever given together. With Bacharach an animated presence at a piano placed centerstage and Costello in credibly sophisticated crooner mode, the show's pace was both smooth and easy. An air of playfulness wafted through the proceedings, from Costello's a capella pre-curtain jaunt through ``Baby, It's You'' to an encore take on ``Little Red Book'' that split the difference between Bacharach's original arrangement and the psychedelic remake by '60s icons Love.
Most of the set was, of course, drawn from ``Painted From Memory,'' the collaborative disc Mercury released last month.
Despite occasional descents into melodrama, virtually all of the songs eclipsed their recorded editions. Most effective were the least-adorned numbers, particularly the moody ``My Thief'' and the album's title track (which came wrapped in a radiant Johnny Mandel arrangement).
A half-dozen songs in, Costello departed, making way for Bacharach to conduct a thoroughly splendid, satisfyingly extensive survey of his catalog -- dipping deep enough to bring forth snippets of such memory-jogging nuggets as ``The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'' and ``Trains and Boats and Planes'' as well as complete versions of ``Alfie'' and ``Say a Little Prayer for You.''
Costello played it relatively close to the vest in his surprisingly brief solo turn, adding tasteful but superfluous orchestrations to a handful of his better-known songs. ``Accidents Will Happen'' took on its cloak of swooping strings with ease, while ``Alison'' seemed a little less comfortable in the new drag.
Then again, the singer seemed more eager to interpret the vintage Bacharach songs that peppered the set than in reconfiguring his own past work. Caressing the melodies of ``I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself'' and ``Anyone Who Had a Heart'' gently, rather than bulldozing them (as he has been known to do), Costello demonstrated a newfound finesse that -- combined with his partner's casual counterpoint -- made for a near-perfect evening.
The mini-tour will also stop in Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles: Folks in other burgs will have to settle for an episode of PBS' ``Sessions at West 54,'' to be broadcast next month.
Presented inhouse. Band: Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, Steve Nieve, Grant Geissman, Dennis Wilson, Lisa Taylor, Donna Taylor, John Pagano, Jody Gaines, Belinda Whitney, David Krieger. Reviewed Oct. 13, 1998.