By choosing to team up with former Attractions pianist Steve Nieve, Elvis Costello has arrived at his most harmonious stage incarnation. No matter how much Costello struggled against it by dumping and then reuniting with them, the fact is that the now-defunct Attractions — and especially Nieve — were consistently the best interpreters of his songs. The downside was that the Attractions' rock-combo configuration inevitably set limits on the material the ever-adventurous Costello could perform live. But with Nieve providing the backup, there is a pleasing compromise: his trademark rich, delicate flourishes leaving room for Costello's much-lauded vocal intensity.
A demonstration of the benefits came at the Concert Hall on Friday night during the five songs that Costello and Nieve performed from the singer's recently released album, the collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory. Liberated from the often cheesy studio arrangements that weigh them down on the album, these demanding songs, notably "I Still Have That Other Girl" and "God Give Me Strength" flew, despite Costello's throat problems throughout the performance.
Clearly this is a happier, more accomplished, more comfortable Costello than Melbourne audiences have seen before. This is his seventh visit in 21 years and from the same stage in the past he has attacked critics and even audience members (in 1985, he spat at one poor devotee: "I don't do requests!"). Incredibly, this time he even invited the audience to help him out on old favorites, "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Radio Sweetheart," and one of his best mid-career songs, "God's Comic."
And yet he remains a traditionalist, kicking off the concert with his staple openers, "Accidents Will Happen" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," which date back to 1978 and 1977 respectively, and closing the set with his first ballad, "Alison." There were some real surprises, including the exhumation of an early B-side, "Talking in the Dark," a new arrangement by Nieve of "Temptation," slowed down so that it barely resembled the 1980 soul outing that began life as an adaptation of Booker T and the MGs' "Time is Tight," and a faithful retelling of one of Costello's first songs of betrayal, the country-flavored "The Long Honeymoon."
And there were some delightful nods to other artists. In the coda to "Accidents Will Happen," Costello slipped in a verse of Bacharach's "24 Hours From Tulsa" and segued from "Radio Sweetheart" into a Van Morrison tribute. He also dusted off two of his collaborations with Paul McCartney, "Shallow Grave" and "Veronica," surely one of his most poignant pieces, here stripped of the jaunty arrangement that made it a hit 10 years ago.
Again, this performance demonstrated the limitations of recording studios as a sign of an artist's worth — at least in Costello's case. Few singers in contemporary music can match him for onstage passion and commitment, a quality that often translates on disc as overwrought vocal histrionics — no small shame because he is arguably one of the best half-dozen or so popular songwriters of the post-war era. The four encores on Friday night were proof of Costello's capacity to entrance an audience. His final song, the relatively obscure "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," produced a transcendent moment as he eschewed the microphone and relied on the natural acoustics of the hall to carry his voice.
Ironically, it was not the song's despairing final line, "I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again," that closed this show but the audience singing along with Nieve's music hall-style piano line — a sad/happy flash of total communication between performer and audience. Costello is, indeed, the genuine article.