At the end of a gruelling five-date world tour, the last thing these two revered old buffers needed was a press conference with gangs of Swedish journalists grilling Elvis on precisely what he meant in 1978 when he made those disparaging remarks about Stockholm. But when your lovingly crafted and critically acclaimed collaborative album, Painted From Memory, has spent a grand total of one week in the UK Top 50, you take all the promotion you can get.
Nevertheless, this concert was a graceful and dignified occasion rather than a desperate plug for album sales. Between them, Elvis Costello (44) and Burt Bacharach (70) have written about a quarter of popular music's classic canon over the last 35 years. The grey-haired American has more hits to his name, which is presumably why he was addressed by the press as "Mr. Bacharach," while his friend, the one-time angry young man of new wave, was matily hailed as "Elvis."
On stage, these roles were reversed. Mr Costello, dressed in full tux and sipping coffee between songs, took centre stage, while grey-suited Burt smiled up at him sheepishly from his grand piano, occasionally turning around to "conduct" the string section. Every time I looked at Costello, I imagined him singing at a Twenties VIP ball, while Burt seemed perpetually surrounded by invisible Muppets.
Costello did all the talking, too, describing himself and Burt as "founding members of the Seductive "Melancholics club." No arguments there. The best moments of Painted From Memory sound like they were crafted in candlelight; the worst sound a bit self-consciously grown-up and, well, South Bank.
Which made the prospect of two hours in the sterile Royal Festival Hall particularly galling. I hate concerts where you can hear people cough, and this had all the makings. The audience, though fairly young, looked suspiciously at home: the Late Review team were there (they hated it), and I overheard one man complaining about the lack of a programme. "How will we know who's who?" he asked in a Sloaney voice.
My fears proved groundless. Costello's levity undercut the venue's austere atmosphere, and the show was broken up by solo spots. After four songs off Painted From Memory and a version of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" (which Costello used to play with the Attractions, and which
recalled his own classic heartbreak song, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down"), the spotlight moved to Burt.
His 30-minute section was effectively a greatest-hits medley, each song played until its chorus registered a burst of applause then abruptly dropped. Though impressive in a discographical sense, it had all the emotional depth of lift muzak. Works of genius ("I Say A Little Prayer," "Walk On By") sat next to slices of full-fat cheese ("Theme From Arthur," "What's New Pussycat?'), all treated with the same breezy disregard. This reached its nadir in a song which may as well have been renamed "24 Seconds of Tulsa."
Costello's solo spot took a contrary tack. "Accidents Will Happen" was given an orchestrated two-minute coda, while the slight "Veronica" was blown up into a kind of mini-opera. "Just a little something we knocked up at soundcheck," Costello smirked. But it was notable that the most moving song was also the least gilded: "Almost Blue" was played on just acoustic guitar and Steve Nieve's piano, and it made the ushers cry.
Surprisingly, though, the night's most effective songs were mainly new ones. "In the Darkest Place," "The Long Division," "This House Is Empty Now"... these tracks are unlikely to trouble the charts, but they are masterful examples of concise, stirring, sophisticated pop songwriting, Burt's lush, unpredictable melodies providing Costello with his most coherent musical backdrop since 1986's consummately tortured Blood & Chocolate.
In contrast to the harsh dynamics of that album, Burt's songs force Costello to soften his voice rather than let rip. The effects are mixed. He will never be Sinatra, and at times he sounds like he's trying too hard — on Painted From Memory, his phrasing is almost operatic. He's best at his most relaxed — as on the jaunty chorus of "Toledo," which seems to call for a rocking-chair and a pipe. However unlikely it seemed 20 years ago, when young Elvis was spitting bile from every orifice, he has aged very gracefully indeed. Pretty soon, he'll be older than Burt.