He's done this sort of thing before, this stripped-down voice-and-piano routine. He even debuted it in America at John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. Since then, he's done it at the Troubadour and at Universal — twice. First as a mini-set during the last Attractions outing, then last fall as a brief respite during his captivating collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
Now he's toured the world with it, bringing it to opera houses in Italy, jazz festivals in Norway, rock confabs in Japan and venues Down Under.
So why when Elvis Costello performed with only pianist-partner Steve Nieve on Tuesday night at the Wiltern Theatre (his first of two sold-out shows there) did the approach feel remarkably inspired, almost enchanted?
Maybe because it was the first time the duo has done this without it seeming a novelty. Not that the idea was ever hokey; others, particularly Ray Davies and Neil Young, have done it equal justice. But for the quintessential Angry Young Man to roar so quietly — indeed, preciously — into his 40s was unique.
At first it was a fan's delight, a chance to hear some old favorites in bare but powerful settings. There's still a twinge of that today — and Tuesday night Costello proved he hasn't forgotten how to please the die-hards, digging up such obscure tunes as "Talking in the Dark" and the vicious "I Hope You're Happy Now" (one of his most underrated rants) as well as revamping the forgotten "Inch by Inch" into a stirring bit of Bobby Womack soul, with Peggy Lee's "Fever" for a coda.
But now it's become so much more. The immediacy of such intimate storytelling has given way to concept and enthralling melodrama, with much credit due to Bacharach's schooling. Ostensibly the second leg of the Painted From Memory tour, it made sense that Costello would devote seven of his 29 songs to its material. But what was unexpected was how richly those numbers would translate to the sparse setting, not to mention how deftly Costello weaved them into a tapestry of his tragically romantic past.
And the threads of it gleamed golden. The way the title track and the anguished divorce of "This House Is Empty Now" spilled over into a toned-down but biting "Pads, Paws and Claws" and the ruminative "Indoor Fireworks" was practically a set within the set. Following a plaintive "Alison" with the even lonelier "In the Darkest Places" was like offering two takes on the same heartache — one naive and bitter about the girl, the other too wise and bitter about its narrator.
Such pacing flowed perfectly. A wickedly humorous "God's Comic" was met with a sneering "Waiting for the End of the World"; the defiance of "Shallow Grave" helped unearth the murkiness of "Watching the Detectives."
It was ample proof that this is how Costello should perform now, with the focus away from what band he has constructed and solely on what he has to say and how he chooses to say it. (A new song written with Nieve — the sketch "You Lie Sweetly," very much the dark side of Cole Porter — was just one more reason to believe.)
Besides, Costello has grown so immensely as a singer that to retreat to the safety of noisy rock would be cowardly. His time with Bacharach has forced him to develop his chops in extraordinary ways. Never has he sounded this good live, nailing the most difficult passages of "God Give Me Strength" and "What's Her Name Today?" while finding fresh nuances in difficult standbys such as "Almost Blue" and "Shipbuilding."
That said, he may never top this performance. He closed with a jaw-dropping and unamplified rendition of the overlooked "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," borrowing the no-mike trick from Tony Bennett. It was beyond description. All that can be said is that, if you were there, you know how magical it was.
It was so strong, in fact, that should Elvis Costello never return to these parts, his legacy will have been sealed.