The stage is in darkness and from somewhere in the wings Elvis sings the opening verse of "Baby It's You." It is one of the many treasures in Uncle Burt's bountiful trove of pop classics and Costello's awed, yearning delivery turns Hal David's words into a short sweet valentine. From the dutiful artisan to the exalted artist, sealed with a wish.
He's been a punk firebrand and a Nashville crooner, played with string quartets and Memphis legends, partnered Paul McCartney and played acoustic support to Bob Dylan. However you look at it, Elvis Costello's spangled but barmy career has a consistently aspirational thread. With Bacharach he's snared a big one — perhaps the biggest of them all — and he's not about to let go. In bouncer's tuxedo, Elvis guards the doors to Bacharach's kingdom — a place of swooning cadences, wistful strings, muted horns and all-embracing melancholy.
Their lush and preposterous album collaboration, Painted From Memory, naturally provides the basis for the bulk of the performance. Much has been said about Elvis' limited vocal talent, how it jars compared with the rarefied gifts of the singers who have previously wrapped themselves in Bacharach's melodic finery. But the recurring aches and painful breaks he makes within the smiling suntanned genius' elaborate and ornate arrangements has a certain poetic resonance. The cumulative effect deepens the songs' warped emotions and pervading sense of regret. Because, let's be fair, whatever his admitted weaknesses, Costello's love for furthering and maintaining tradition (it wasn't hard to spy a little Sinatra style in his relaxed, conversational presentation throughout) has given Burt a lavish autumnal career rejuvenation.
They each do "solo" spots with full orchestral accompaniment. Elvis dons an acoustic then an electric guitar for a salvo that includes two strangely overdressed and drastically overhauled versions of his own "Veronica" and "Accidents Will Happen." Bacharach takes lead vocal on two songs in a hit-filled medley and when he does you can hear one possible reason why he found a soul partner in Elvis.
But coaxing the pulsing gossamer lines from his musicians, the maestro's abiding love and dedication to his work is unbounded. The finely balanced Burt 'n' El mix of harshness and delicacy, caution and fear, is rhapsodic and heart-stopping. It's a blend maintained right to the closing "In The Darkest Place" and "God Give Me Strength" — proof that their love affair is founded on something far more substantial than showbiz convenience.