Elvis Costello's career may have been born out of the fury of punk rock, but for all his rough edges the man's a formalist at heart.
From country to classical, Costello has flitted from style to style with an almost academic discipline. The singer hasn't always deflected accusations of dilettantism, and North, his recent stab at jazzy, piano-drizzled torch songs, has in particular proven a love-it or hate-it exercise.
While its admittedly beautiful songs are somewhat fussily "composed, arranged, and conducted" by Costello himself, North features a predictably ace array of supporting players, none more essential than longtime Attractions keyboardist and redoubtable foil Steve Nieve. The pianist knows how to strike the right balance between pomp and playfulness, a crucial contribution when he teams with Costello in a duo setting.
Appearing at the Oriental Theatre, Costello and Nieve performed a good chunk of North, breaking up Costello's song-cycle narrative of love lost and found into separate servings, book-ended by idiosyncratic selections drawn from the singer's vast catalog. But the North songs stood out for their starkness and simplicity, played to the pin-drop silence of a rapt audience, who swooned along with songs like "You Left Me in the Dark" and "Fallen."
Before diving into the North material, Costello and Nieve played a riveting "The House is Empty Now" from Costello's Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted from Memory, concluding with the singer standing alone in the spotlight at the lip of the stage, belting out the final notes sans amplification. When Painted was released, some complained about Costello's tendency to write songs too tough for him to handle, but six years later his singing sounds better than ever. Often with just Nieve's sedate accompaniment — leaving his voice virtually naked — Costello navigated the tricky turns of even his most complex tunes with gusto.
Tackling his catalog, Costello used his vocal prowess to toy with the phrasing and delivery of songs such as "Motel Matches" and "I Hope You're Happy Now," the latter transformed into something approaching a breezy ballad. Those hoping for more familiar hits eventually got a few, but the night was filled with relatively obscure Costello gems, from "Home Truth" to "Black Sails in the Sunset."
The always animated Nieve bobbed and danced behind a grand piano, his precise pounding and delicate filigrees adding new accents to the likes of "Suit of Lights" and "All the Rage," and aiding Costello's tricky transition from the forgotten "Inch by Inch" to Peggy Lee's "Fever."
As Costello tried out a handful of unreleased songs, like the bluesy "Delivery Man," and Nieve shifted from piano to keyboard and melodica to attack Costello's classics, you could sometimes see the old friends smile at one another. Even a pair of consummate pros know a good thing when they hear it.