For Elvis Costello, one of pop music's most creative chameleons, this sort of gig — playing the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic — is old hat: If there's a setting in which he hasn't performed yet it's hard to think of it, the restlessly prolific musician having worked in every genre from the '70s punk and New Wave scene from which he arrived to country, string quartets, jazz and ballet.
So for his headlining debut at the Bowl on Friday, which featured singer-songwriter Ben Folds with his own orchestral set as the opener, Costello was comfortably in his element. He cheerfully chatted between songs with the audience of 11,000, called out the names of the musicians in the orchestra and his band after solo turns, and presented 10 of the 11 classic songs in his set in classical arrangements, with only the final encore done in a more traditional version.
It was a lovely night of music, yet one that fell just shy of the live masterpiece it might have been, mostly because at roughly just an hour it felt like you'd just finished the appetizers when the waiter dropped the check and flipped the sign in the window from open to closed.
As the strings in the orchestra started to swell at the top of his set, Costello arrived on stage in a dark and dapper suit, topped with a spiffy red fedora, singing the opening to "Accidents Will Happen," a bit rough here and there — it's surely a tad tricky to match a jazzy vocal to the orchestral backing — though by the end it all felt in sync.
With the L.A. Phil playing the intro to the next song, "Veronica," Costello's longtime keyboard player Steve Nieve, from his original backing band the Attractions, took a seat at the piano on stage and, with Costello on acoustic guitar, the two played the opening verse mostly on their own, before everyone joined together for a lush take on the tune. (In addition to Nieve, Costello had borrowed bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Karriem Riggins from his wife Diana Krall's band.)
Where some rock or pop musicians might use an orchestra as more or less a bigger version of their usual backing band, Costello's arrangements, which conductor Scott Dunn had praised him for in his introduction, tended to retool the songs more completely.
For instance, "Wise Up Ghost," from Costello's most recent album — a collaboration with the Roots — felt much less an bluesy burner, much more a modern symphonic piece. "Watching The Detectives," meanwhile, was much less the sneering tell-off of the original version, transformed here into a big band jazz orchestra take, as it originally had been for performances with the Metropole Orkest a few years back.
Two songs with connections to jazz trumpeter Chet Baker were among the highlights of the set. On "Shipbuilding," for which Baker had improvised his parts in the studio nearly three decades ago, Costello said he'd primarily taken those bits and used them as the basis for the arrangement he wrote.
"Almost Blue," a torch song from the album Imperial Bedroom, was one Costello had dreamed of Baker singing from the moment he wrote it, and later both Baker and Costello's jazz singer wife Krall both covered it. At the Bowl, both "Shipbuilding" and "Almost Blue" were presented in lush and lovely versions, with the latter getting an especially moving cello solo midway through the number that helped offset the fact that for the first half of Nieve's solo on the melodica couldn't be heard.
"God Give Me Strength," a song he co-wrote with Burt Bacharach, wrapped up the orchestral part of the night, with "Alison," his earliest and perhaps best-loved song, done mostly just with Costello on guitar and Nieve on piano to wrap up the night too soon.
Folds was equally winning in his 45-minute opening set, the transition from his piano-based songs to the orchestra an easy one to make, and one he clearly enjoyed making. In addition to the L.A. Phil — "How 'bout my band tonight, huh?" he joked after the second song, gesturing to Dunn and the players — Folds had his drummer and an eight-person choir to flesh out songs such as "Effington" and "Jesusland" that started off his show.
Where his songs are often bittersweet and funny at the same time, from his seat at the piano Folds focused on the latter. He shared stories about the inspiration for songs — "Cologne" was written on stage in Germany, when he was sick and accidentally over-medicated, inspired in part by the astronaut who put on a diaper to drive all day and night to shoot her ex-lover. He also expressed his happiness at playing on the bill with Costello, whom he'd cut school in North Carolina as a teen to travel to New York City to see, only to be stood up by the scalper who'd promised him tickets.
Folds used the dynamics of the instruments on stage strongly. On "Narcolepsy" his piano and the strings alternated delicate motifs with Folds pounding the keys as the brass and percussion roared and tenor Kerry Marsh, the director of Folds' choir, added a lovely operatic bit of singing.
As with Costello, Folds has stretched his musicality to write directly for classical performance, playing a movement from a piano concerto he'd written a year or so ago during his set. The piece again offered the dramatic dynamics of some of the song arrangements, finding Folds at one point playing the strings inside the open grand piano or holding them down with one hand while playing the keys with the other.
"Landed," which featured Folds' falsetto on the chorus, was a standout, while the set-closing "One Angry Dwarf" was proof that sometimes it's hard to blend the wildness and spontaneity of rock with the more formal strictures of classical, coming off a bit of a runaway train, though enjoyable for that same reason, too.