When Elvis Costello released his last CD, All This Useless Beauty, earlier this year, he initially supported the album with an abbreviated tour as a duo with Attractions pianist Steve Nieve. While he packed along the rest of the band for a full-fledged road show at bigger venues later in the summer, his stripped-down, largely acoustic sets in May delivered the real treats. The proof is in the new five-mini-CD box set Costello & Nieve.
Each disc documents five to six tunes from concert stops in Los Angeles (at the Troubadour), San Francisco (the Fillmore), Chicago (the Park West), Boston (the Paradise) and New York (the Supper Club).
The box was originally issued as a promo-only package sent to radio stations. Costello chose the tunes for the package, a combination of new numbers, old favorites and a few choice covers. The promo immediately became a much sought-after collector's item.
The response was so positive Warner Bros. decided to spice up the set with four-color slipcases (instead of the simple cardboard sleeves in the promo collection) and retail the two hours' worth of live material in a limited-edition box set of 30,000 copies. Those shouldn't last long on record store shelves, partly because of the inspired performances Costello and Nieve deliver and partly because of collectors taking advantage of the relatively — by pop music standards — small pressing. One of a handful of truly talented pop singer-songwriters, Costello shines in this unplugged setting. His well-crafted and highly literate lyrics benefit the most from the acoustic arrangements, taking on a deeper poignancy than on their original versions.
As for Costello's guitar playing, it's passable. He strums up a storm on several numbers, including a scorching "The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes," and even flat picks the melody line of "Little Atoms," which, he explains to the crowd, bears an uncanny resemblance to a fragment of the German national anthem composed by Franz Joseph Haydn (this little tidbit of information, he says, comes courtesy of a German interviewer). Costello also plays electric guitar to take a few lead lines on a couple of tunes, including the crowd-pleaser "Watching the Detectives."
Nieve's subtle piano support is remarkable throughout. He offers gently rolling lines and dramatic crescendos that owe more to classical music than pop. But at times he pounces on the keys with rock fervor, especially on "Detectives."
There are a number of surprises, including some amusing anecdotes from Costello. In New York he passionately sings a medley that opens with "Alison," touches on Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears" and "Tears of a Clown" and ends with "Clowntime Is Over." For the Los Angeles date he covers audience member Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself." And in San Francisco — where he and Nieve transfixed the Fillmore crowd on a stiflingly hot night — he succumbs to audience pressure and delivers a sublime version of the Grateful Dead's "Ship of Fools."
Costello & Nieve may have been an afterthought to his record company, but for his fans it's a holiday gift that may well be his best outing since 1989's Spike.