Review of concert at 1999-06-13: Minneapolis, MN, Orpheum Theatre
Star Tribune, 1999-06-14
- Jon Bream


Published Monday, June 14, 1999

Costello reinvents himself with latest performance

Jon Bream / Star Tribune

Rock hero Elvis Costello used to be disgusted, and now he's trying to live with the curse of sophistication.

Those notions -- taken from the lyrics of his songs -- describe respectively the brilliant beginning of his career and the sometimes brilliant second half. If he started out as the biting king of new-wave rock in the late 1970s, the ever-ambitious, highly literate British singer-songwriter evolved into the Cole Porter of rock. Sunday night at the Historic Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, he came across as the Tony Bennett of rock (complete with singing without the microphone).

In a generous two-hour, 40-minute performance, Costello, 44, reinvented himself once again. The focus and inspiration of the immensely satisfying 34-song set was Costello's 1998 Grammy-winning collaboration with erstwhile pop hitmeister Burt Bacharach, "Painted from Memory." (Remember, in the past, he's worked with such unexpected partners as Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet and Chet Baker.)

Accompanied by his own guitar and by pianist Steve Nieve (from Costello's original band, the Attractions), Costello used the less-is-more approach. While he established himself by injecting unbridled passion and vitriolic urgency into the pop-rock format, he now favors nuance over passion, art over intensity. That's not to say that his two-man show was as somber as Neil Young's solo outing at the Orpheum last month.

No, Costello was talkative, explaining what many of the new songs were about or reminiscing about his career. While his songs seem cerebral and labored craft compared with the simple, free-flowing tunes that Young offered, Costello was quick with his wit -- and quite amusing. When a fan shouted for "God Give Me Strength" from the new album, Costello retorted, "He certainly may in time."

Costello knows how to work an audience. He had the full house clapping, snapping and singing along. He threw them enough old favorites, including "Alison," "Red Shoes," "Every Day I Write the Book" and "Accidents Will Happen," to keep them happy. But mostly he wowed them with his singing, showing more range, subtlety and professionalism than they might have expected from the vitriolic rocker who once defied the producers of TV's "Saturday Night Live" by stopping one song and then playing the forbidden commentary "Radio Radio."

Most of Sunday's songs were about love and longing. For the most part, Costello chose oldies that fit within those themes and recast them in a quiet, sophisticated fashion befitting his Bacharach material. Even the Bacharach tunes sounded more effective in concert because the focus was on the story and the emotion, not the lush arrangements, although Nieve's piano playing was superbly supportive.

Best of the Bacharach was "Painted from Memory," which sounded like a contemporary standard, thanks to Costello's Bennett-like crooning, and "This House Is Empty Now," which suggested a Dionne Warwick hit played too slowly. Costello tossed in a new number, a collaboration with Nieve called "You Lie Sweetly," a sly morning-after song. His treatment of Charles Aznavour's "She," done for the new Julia Roberts movie "Notting Hill," wasn't romantic enough. Other missteps included the forced "Pump It Up," the simple snap-along "Inch by Inch" and the too-playful "Watching the Detectives." But there were many highlights: the jazzy "Baby Plays Around," the bitingly political "Little Palaces," the Dylanesque "I Want You," the amusing "God's Comic," a brief Van Morrison medley and a potent "God Give Me Strength."
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