Is there something in our high-altitude air?
On Monday at McNichols Arena, Bob Dylan performed a concert that was a revelation — singing clearly and passionately, playing fiery guitar with his intuitive band, re-interpreting and re-invigorating his old songs while presenting terrific recent ones. On Wednesday at the Paramount Theatre, revered veteran Elvis Costello matched him. In his own way, of course. He was appearing only with pianist Steve Nieve, playing acoustic guitar and often singing instrumentless while bemusedly gesticulating as if conducting an invisible combo. (He did play electric guitar on a couple of songs.)
His and Nieve's elegant black outfits, as well as the uncluttered stage, underscored the mood — this night was about the passion inherent in intimately presented music.
While the centerpiece of the show was the introspective, melancholy tunes Costello wrote with Burt Bacharach for last year's Painted From Memory album, everything sounded great — including Costello's voice. Sometimes in the past, especially on ballads, he has tended to sound monochromatic and a bit choked-up. But at the Paramount, he modulated his clear, strong voice expertly, communicating the kind of bittersweet wistfulness — sometimes gentle, sometimes desperate — that his new material deserves.
The Painted From Memory songs, still relatively unfamiliar because of radio resistance to their maturity, inspired the receptive audience with their useful beauty. The title song, "Toledo," "What's Her Name Today?," "I Still Have That Other Girl," "This House Is Empty Now," "God Give Me Strength" all were commanding. And the way Costello segued from his famous "Alison" to the new album's "In the Darkest Place" revealed how consistent Painted From Memory is with his overall artistic vision.
During the three-hour, multi-encore performance for an almost-capacity crowd, which featured some 30 songs, Costello was out to prove something about his music — and good music in general. Lasting songs transcend arrangements and categories.
Throughout his long career — his first album, My Aim Is True, came out in 1977 — his material has consistently been distinguished for both lyrics and melody. At times on Wednesday, thanks to Nieve's dexterity on piano, the compositions sounded closer to jazz or classical — or Charles Aznavour-style balladry — than to rock.
But that brought out the heartrendingly gorgeous qualities of ballads and midtempo numbers like "Indoor Fireworks," "Man Out of Time," "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" and "Accidents Will Happen," which included a fragment from Bacharach's wonderful old "Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa."
There was also a show-stopping version of "God's Comic," featuring a monologue that moved from humorous observations to a condemnation of Charlton Heston's NRA support.
As emotional as the show was, it could also be good rocking fun. Costello tenderly encouraged people to sing along with "Pump It Up," snap fingers while he sang Little Willie John's "Fever," and provide harmonies during his swinging medley of his early "Radio Sweetheart" and Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)." At the Paramount, everyone was indeed in heaven when Elvis Costello sang.