Less was definitely more, much more, when Elvis Costello performed Sunday night at Copley Symphony Hall, downtown.
Gone was the orchestra and all-star rhythm section that accompanied him last year on his brief U.S. tour with fellow songwriter Burt Bacharach, with whom he won a Grammy Award in February. Gone, too, was the Attractions, Costello's now once again dormant band, with which he appeared at Starlight Bowl during his most recent San Diego show in 1994.
Happily, these absences proved to be an asset, not a detriment. And they helped make Sunday's concert a richly rewarding and satisfying experience.
Armed only with two acoustic guitars and a hollow-body electric model that he used briefly near the end of his performance, Costello's sole accompanist was erstwhile Attractions' keyboardist Steve Nieve, who performed mostly on grand piano. Together, they delivered a stirring, 124-minute set that was a marvel of musical passion, artistic diversity and finely calibrated dynamic control.
Their repertoire ranged from the radiant "Radio Sweetheart," the first song Costello ever wrote more than 25 years ago, to a poignant new ballad about hollow lust, "You Lie Sweetly," which is the first piece he and Nieve have written together.
The other 26 selections came from nearly every phase of the bespectacled singer-songwriter's proudly eclectic career, and included a generous assortment of songs from Painted From Memory, his exquisite, lushly orchestrated 1998 album with Bacharach. Intriguingly, the absence of an orchestra and rhythm section actually strengthened these songs, allowing them to breathe more easily and expanding — rather than limiting — their dynamic possibilities.
Commenting on that critically acclaimed album's relative lack of commercial success, Costello told the audience: "In fact, the record company liked it so much that they're going to re-release it next week. I think it's early '90s nostalgia."
The rapturously received concert also featured vital new versions of such early Costello favorites as "Alison," "Watching the Detectives" and the show-closing "Pump It Up," which sounded no less electrifying without a full band.
In each instance, the stripped-down instrumentation created a welcome sense of musical intimacy in the nearly full 2,200-seat venue. And it enabled listeners to savor Costello's wonderfully expressive singing and impeccably crafted lyrics without any distractions.
On the chilling ballad "I Want You," he rose from a whisper to a scream and back again. On the tender, wistful "Painted From Memory," the achingly beautiful title track of his album with Bacharach, he pushed his voice to the top of its range without breaking. And on the deeply moving "Toledo," another Bacharach/Costello ballad about failed romance, The Artist Sometimes Known As The English Elvis soared highest with the tender, wordless vocal coda that concluded the song.
Costello invoked the American Elvis during an extended version of the alternately scathing and wickedly funny "God's Comic," from his 1989 album Spike. It featured a lengthy mid-song monologue that found him taking careful aim at Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Association.
But Costello also injected humor into his monologue, as he demonstrated what his deceased musical namesake might sound like singing Duran Duran's "Rio." And he was astute enough to realize that the sophisticated art songs he wrote with Bacharach would be better received if they were interspersed throughout the concert.
Accordingly, the emotionally anguished ballad "What's Your Name Today?" was followed by the charged 1978 rocker "(I Don't Want to Go) To Chelsea," while the wrenching "This House Is Empty Now" came just before 1989's edgy, hard-driving "Pads, Paws and Claws."
Costello benefited greatly from the deft piano work of Nieve, who was a model of empathetic support throughout.
Nieve rarely soloed, and he was careful to leave plenty of room for Costello's beautifully nuanced singing. But his ingenious piano filigrees enhanced the songs, and his brief solo on "Talking in the Dark" somehow combined baroque keyboard flourishes and a driving honky-tonk vamp in a way that sounded perfectly natural. No less natural was the note-perfect segue Costello and Nieve made from "Radio Sweetheart" to Van Morrison's ebullient "Jackie Wilson Said." And when, near the end of the evening, the two instantly shifted from "Invisible Ink" to Little Willie John's perpetually sultry "Fever," Costello and Nieve reaffirmed just how effectively they could raise the musical temperature all by themselves.