NEW YORK, Oct. 13 — Elvis Costello has long made a point of collaborating with musicians whose work he appreciates, a roster of artists that ranges from Madness and the Specials to Paul McCartney and Roy Orbison to the Brodsky Quartet and Tony Bennett. Looked at in that light, his decision to work with easy listening guru Burt Bacharach doesn't seem all that strange. What does seem odd, though, is the passion Costello clearly feels for Bacharach's pop stylings. As the duo opened their brief mini-tour at Manhattan's famed Radio City Music Hall, Costello repeatedly paid tribute to the 70-year-old Bacharach, opening the show by serenading him with "Baby It's You" from behind closed curtains, and repeatedly leading the audience in standing ovations for the elder statesman of musical kitsch.
The pair's two-hour show consisted of four 30-minute sets. After jointly playing material from their new album, Painted From Memory, Costello left Bacharach to lead his orchestra in a medley of his hit movie songs, including "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" and "Alfie," as well as several well-known songs he wrote for '60s pop artists. When Costello returned to the stage, he and his long-time keyboard player Steve Nieve reprised a few selections from their recent tour, with orchestral backing. Finally, Burt rejoined Elvis for a few more cuts from the new album and some Costello-sung versions of Bacharach classics. Technically, the show was near perfect, with the orchestra performing sensitive accompaniment throughout, and the slick but soulful background singers offering a graceful contrast to Costello's rough, vibrato-heavy version of a crooner's baritone. If the audience — largely consisting of 30-something Costello fans — was anything but enthralled by Bacharach's oldies set, you couldn't tell by the reception they gave him, and the Costello-Nieve performances also resulted in rapturous applause.
Certainly, the evening was entertaining, and it was a pleasure to see the tuxedo-clad Costello fronting an orchestra, an environment far different from those on his tours with the Attractions or Nieve. Still, the show could've been better. If Elvis had stuck around to sing on all of the Bacharach numbers rather than yielding the stage, we might've had more moments as riveting as his rendition of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" near the beginning of the show and the encores "Make It Easy on Yourself" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart." Costello's voice may not be perfect, but he's a great pop vocalist, and there's a startling tension between his dramatic vocals and Bacharach's slick song craft. Costello's own songs could have benefited from some better-integrated arrangements: In this setting, "Accidents Will Happen" sounded unconvincingly baroque, while the "Eleanor Rigby"-like string intro to "Alison" seemed tacked on, as though Costello felt the need to make use of the orchestra Bacharach lent him.
But in the show's best moments, such minor gripes were easily forgotten. During the final encore, Costello stepped up to the mic to sing a stunning version of "God Give Me Strength" — the first song he and Bacharach co-wrote, for the film Grace of My Heart. His performance was a reminder of how powerful the sound of a human voice sung against a full orchestra can be. For that alone, he and Bacharach deserved the crowd's final, thunderous ovation.