From behind the gilded curtain at Radio City Music Hall in New York, the familiar warble came, unaccompanied — Elvis Costello singing "Baby It's You," as he once did on an old B side.
After a single verse came the introduction of the man behind the melody, Burt Bacharach, who, with unflappable style, conducted the 24-piece orchestra into his own signature — "What the World Needs Now."
Thus the influential songwriters of different generations began the first joint performance Tuesday of their unexpected — and unusually satisfying — collaboration.
In the premiere concert of a short tour to promote the album Painted from Memory, the two performed all its dozen songs, with the orchestra, under the sure hand of Bacharach, 70, soaring and swelling as if it were the Swingin' '60s once more.
For Costello, 44, the concert seemed to place him elsewhere in time. Without guitar, he stood in tuxedo in front of a microphone, which he clutched in both hands like a singer in a bygone big band.
As on the album, the canny set of new songs about mostly failed relationships provided a challenging showcase for his distinctive voice. It's not as pretty as most of those that have carried Bacharach melodies, but few have been as forcefully passionate.
The material soared in concert and more vividly showed Bacharach's role in creating and orchestrating the stirring melodies, articulated with familiar trademarks such as muted horns and odd time changes. Costello began a number of the songs tentatively, only to belt out a thrilling climax.
A well-rehearsed medley of Bacharach's past hits showed how bottomless the hits were, from the usual dazzle of "A House is Not a Home" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" to a "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" he sang himself. But the hipster crowd had to pause when a medley of music came to "Arthur's Theme: The Best That You Can Do." None had ever gone to an Elvis Costello show expecting to hear a Christopher Cross song.
The old Bacharach/Hal David songs Costello chose to sing included a gorgeous revival of "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," the soaring "Make It Easy on Yourself," the 60s garage nugget "Little Red Book" as well as "Anyone Who Had A Heart."
In his own spotlight segment, Costello's longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve stepped to Bacharach's grand piano for what at first seemed like feeble orchestrations to things like "Accidents Will Happen." Yet a version of "Alison" with strings worked well. Best were those ballads with Bacharach ambitions, such as "Almost Blue."