When his fans wanted country, he gave them rock and roll, and when radio expected Kurt Cobain, he was happy to give them Kurt Weill. Now the 1997 model Elvis Costello returns with Attractions pianist Steve Nieve on a limited edition five-EP set of performances culled from a handful of late-'96 club dates. Costello & Nieve serves as a reminder of Costello's massive talent. It's Elvis giving the people what he wants — intimate performances of mostly newer material, stripped down to the basics of acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals.
Costello isn't afraid to rework signature songs. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" is performed alone, with a furiously strummed acoustic guitar reminiscent of Pete Townsend's banging overture to "Pinball Wizard." "Alison" is presented as a showstopper, the centerpiece of a set-closing medley that also includes a two-minute detour into a pair of Smokey Robinson classics.
The five American shows documented on Costello & Nieve provide a song list as diverse as American Top 40 radio of the Sixties. But instead of the percussive influences of Motown, Mersey, and Stax, Costello and Nieve provide nuanced arrangements in tribute to Broadway, Beethoven, the Grateful Dead, and classic film scores. Plus you get an Elvis Costello confident and comfortable enough to joke about his work during the between-song monologues.
Most of Costello & Nieve stands as a simple document — one of contemporary pop's best songwriters reinventing himself as a song stylist, providing a perfect treat for long time fans.
Perhaps the defining moment of Costello & Nieve arrives during his take on the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," a hit for Dionne Warwick in 1966 and a staple of Costello's early shows (heard on the '78 comp Stiffs Live). On this new version, Costello appears to address his commercial shortcomings head-on, notably the disappointing reception accorded 1996's All This Useless Beauty. It's as if for the first time Costello has discovered that someone else's words fit his plight better than his own.