The pen is mightier than the rhythm section. So it is presently with Elvis Costello, allowing his prose to command his concerts, with only his guitar and master pianist Steve Nieve to provide instrumental embellishment.
The effect is startling: stories of loves lost and lives in torment, framed in stark musical relief as Costello sings eloquently and precisely. While the stripped-back presentation demonstrates songs from his new Painted From Memory album, it is a marvellous springboard for Costello to recycle his vast song library and dress up old chestnuts in striking new clothes. Removing the band arrangements from such songs as "Accidents Will Happen," "Red Shoes," "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" gives an aching tenderness and immense power for contrasts.
Costello delivers new songs — "What's Her Name Today?," "Painted From Memory," "This House Is Empty Now" — with dramatic flourish, offset by wry humour in "God's Comic."
There is a masterful intuition between Costello and Nieve, each knowing when to add a flourish or a silence for maximum effect. He is not fuelled by anger but remorse. He offers more impish grins than clenched jaws. And he is generous to a fault, playing a vast list of songs and being visibly uplifted by the raucous calls for encores.
Opening act Michael Thomas (of Weddings, Parties, Anything) works in the same vein. His and Costello's dedication to tales in sweeping melodies brings a sense of nobility to the humble profession of singer/songwriter.