In another time, another place – like downtown in Greenwich Village 20 years ago – this would have seemed more like a conversation between friends, earnest folkies testing the mettle of their tunes and poetic confessions of an audience that seemed like family. But in the stately calm of New York's Avery Fisher Hall, the stage bare except for a solitary microphone and a solemn backfield of stand-by guitars, this acoustic showcase is dedicated to the Song as Art, intimate intentions threatened by the formal surroundings and unabashedly worshipful tenor of the crowd.
That the solo Elvis and equally solo T-Bone could each light roaring emotional bonfires with only six strings and a song shows that tonight is really about the singer as well as his song. Consider Burnett, a Texas beanpole who shares Costello's love of booby-trap wordplay and strums his acoustic guitar with dramatic vigour.
There's something familiarly Dylanesque in his drawling cowboy whine, but when he sings even something as poignant as "Fatally Beautiful" or as wistful as "I Wish You Could Have Seen Her Dance," he does it with a hearty fullness so contagious he breaks out in these crazy little mock Elvis (as in Presley) dances.
Yet more importantly, the intimate details of a good song can come alive in such an honest elemental setting. For Burnett, it is "Fatally Beautiful" (from his outstanding '83 LP Proof Through The Night) and a new number called "My Life And The Women Who Lived It," a strange droning meditation over a bassy funka-thunka rhythm like a dark blues. For Costello, it starts immediately with "Accidents Will Happen," its quietly bitter tone heightened by his stark picking and softly tortured vocal.
Without the Attractions nipping frantically at his heels, Costello tends to concentrate on moody ballads ("Almost Blue," "Stranger In The House") and intimate chamber-pop numbers ("New Amsterdam," a hushed but pointed reading of "Green Shirt") which gives the show a slight down-tempo flavour. But his voice is full and confident, even reaching for soul catharsis in "Alison" when he dares to testify Otis Redding-style at the climax.
Yet he sounds most convincing on the new material – most of it already recorded with the band for the next album – because he has most to gain and lost in such a naked setting. And he sings as if he has all his stakes riding on each verse. "Worthless Thing" is practically corrosive in its subtle twisting of hoary music business clichés. In contrast, "The Only Flame In Town" glows with romantic harmonic chord jumps and a brazen confessional lyric.
As if to acknowledge the root of his art, Costello encores with a torrid version of Dylan's "I Threw It All Away," and then takes on his own masters of war with a spooky "Shipbuilding" on the electric piano and finally closes with his new "Imposter" single, "Peace In Our Time." He gets the right cheers when he mentions that "spaceman in the White House."
But what really cuts to the bone is the defiant tone and anxious pleading at the heart of the song. Costello's songs have always cut that way. But there were times tonight when you never knew they cut so deep.