Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 8, 1999
Eclectic Elvis Costello keeps trying on
All in all, life is good for Elvis Costello.
His 20-plus years as a singer, songwriter and performer have brought him from Angry Young Man posturing and lyrics spit out in 45-minute torrents to a classical string record with the Brodsky Quartet.
He has collaborated with an eclectic group of musicians including Paul McCartney, Aimee Mann, Roger McGuinn, Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Tony Bennett, Deborah Harry and Dusty Springfield — to name just a few.
And now there is the Grammy — Costello's first — for his pop collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
"That was a bit of a spectacular evening," Costello says of their win earlier this year for the song "I Still Have That Other Girl."
He's calling from England, where he's taking a one-week break before the start of a tour that brings him to the Riverside Theatre on Friday and then to Chicago as a headliner for Saturday's Guinness Fleadh.
Costello will be joined on both dates by keyboardist Steve Nieve, a founding member of the Attractions, the tight group that played on Costello's signature early albums in the late '70s and early '80s.
The Attractions — Costello, Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation) — were much like any creatively matched but temperamentally combative foursome whose peak years saw them celebrating, then breaking up, then re-uniting in 1994 for Brutal Youth.
Shortly after that album, Nieve became the lone Attraction when the rest of the musicians didn't care to follow the direction Costello was pursuing — which, most people will tell you, is every direction.
To the delight of some fans and the dismay of others, there isn't a musical road Costello hasn't taken — jazz, country, symphonic, movie soundtrack. Costello guested twice on the satirical Larry Sanders Show. He has written for films from The Godfather: Part III to a song for Rugrats: The Movie, with his wife, former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan. This summer, he has two songs and a spot with Bacharach in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. He also sings the title song for the film Notting Hill: Charles Aznavour's "She," backed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Last autumn, the onetime knight of new wave joined smooth 1970s songwriting icon Bacharach on an album, Painted From Memory, and a tour that brought them to the Chicago Theater.
Costello, the man who made big, geeky glasses, skinny pants and oversized jackets a fashion statement, was wearing — gasp — a tuxedo.
"That was a good night," says Costello. The singer and guitarist played crooning charmer against a backdrop of two pianos, a small orchestra and lushly sweet background singers.
The unlikely collaboration between Costello, 44, and Bacharach, 70, was borne of a chance meeting several years ago at a recording studio in California. In 1996, the two wrote "God Give Me Strength" for the film Grace of My Heart via answering machine, with Bacharach in California and Costello in Dublin.
Expect to hear many of their songs at Costello's Riverside show with Nieve — without benefit of a tuxedo or Bacharach — as well as new, pared-down versions of Attraction-era classics like "Alison."
"I have done this kind of touring before," says Costello, who did a limited concert schedule with Nieve in 1996 to promote All This Useless Beauty, his last album before label-jumping from Warner Brothers to Mercury.
"I enjoyed that more than anything else I did that year, and since then we've done a number of tours and concerts with just the two of us. I just enjoy playing that way, and having 12 very strong new songs at the center of your repertoire is good enough reason."
Doing the unexpected, and not what the record company or audiences demand, seems to be a recurring Costello theme, no matter what flavor of music he is exploring.
Years ago, he stopped his Saturday Night Live performance to play the anti-radio song "Radio, Radio" even though the show's producers warned him not to. He borrowed his name from Elvis Presley, then recruited members of Presley's TCB (Taking Care of Business) band James Burton, Ron Tutt and Jerry Scheff for the King of America tour.
The current stripped-down show appears slightly out of character for a man who used to always seem, well, really ticked off.
"The night takes you," Costello says. "I've done plenty of shows like that — you know, 45 minutes, exhausting, and that's as much as the audience wants to hear of that kind of thing. ... But when it comes to just being able to draw on every type of song I've ever written from every period of my career, I can't think of any better way to just do it than just with the simplest way where the songs really have to stand up."
Costello promises a rowdier show when he and Nieve join Saturday's Fleadh, which also stars pop great Van Morrison. Costello's current set list includes Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," and Costello says he's hoping Morrison will join him on the song.
Costello's early works foreshadowed a mega-watt career. His 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True, went platinum; his next two records, This Year's Model and Armed Forces, were gold (500,000 copies).
He's bounced up and down on the charts since then. Spike went gold in 1989 but Painted from Memory has sold only 182,000 copies since its release in September 1998, according to SoundScan.
This fickle acceptance is a reflection that challenging the audience by challenging your own musical style won't necessarily afford you superstar status. If you're good enough, however, it will encourage the faithful, cult-like following Costello has.
Just don't expect another Elvis Costello and the Attractions album.
"I don't see any real point in making another combo record like the Attractions records because I felt that we did everything we could in almost 20 years of playing together," Costello says. "Steve and I have got this rapport where we've taken the best things of playing in that band and a whole lot of other things that can only exist outside the band and put them together."
If you go
Who: Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Riverside Theatre, 116 W. Wisconsin Ave.
How much: $32.50 and $42.50 at the box office and through Ticketmaster.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 8, 1999
No 'rock star' on this guy's passport
If your Elvis is dead, try ours. Here are Elvis Costello's rapid-fire thoughts on a few random subjects: