Willamette Week, September 16, 2014

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Elvis has left the building

Jeff Rosenberg

Perpetual sideman Steve Nieve steps uneasily into the spotlight.

"What’s a groupie?"

That question, innocently posed by young, classically trained, rock-crazed keyboardist Steve Nason in the presence of famously profane pub-rocker Ian Dury in 1977, prompted an amused Dury to christen him "Steve Naive," a name which, slightly altered, has stuck ever since. Thirty-seven years later, Steve Nieve has traversed the globe, accompanied legends and, one presumes, become better versed in the "groupie" concept, yet he retains a guileless sincerity in conversation.

"It's odd, talking about oneself," he says by phone from L.A.'s legendary rocker haven the Chateau Marmont, the afternoon before a recent Hollywood Bowl appearance with the L.A. Philharmonic and the man Nieve has backed for most of his career, Elvis Costello. "I haven't done it much. I'm much more comfortable talking about other people."

He's not just talking about himself these days: He's playing by himself, too, in a show dubbed "Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello." Nieve, 56, has been Costello's most constant collaborator, in legendary backing band the Attractions and its current incarnation, the Imposters. A Stravinsky-loving student at London's Royal College of Music in 1977 with "an obsession" to play in a rock band, the former Nason answered an ad for what he was told was a backing band for an Elvis Presley impersonator — a ploy to limit the number of respondents. "But as I knew all of Elvis Presley's songs," he says, "I didn't think it would be a problem." Instead, "in a darkly lit rehearsal room," he met the bespectacled, acerbic, hyperliterate other Elvis. "It was about a week later," he recalls, "that I discovered my parents in tears, because they'd received the call that I was now an Attraction."

Nieve established himself as a proficient, imaginative player, often the essential melodic element accompanying Costello's voice and guitar and the supple rhythm section. His adventurous excursions on the Vox Continental, Farfisa and other keyboards helped define Costello's early sound. But Nieve really shone on the band's sixth album, 1982's expansive Imperial Bedroom, which featured complex, precise arrangements developed in unusually extensive rehearsals. "The songs that Elvis wrote for that album were particularly melodic," he says, "very compatible with my way of playing."

In 1986, Costello made his first Attractions-less album since his debut, the countrified King of America (though the band did appear on one track). One more album with the group was followed by an extended period of Costello experimenting with other musicians. It afforded Nieve the opportunity to explore other avenues, scoring films and commercials and leading the band for British chat-show host Jonathan Ross' programs, shifting between styles to faithfully back such guests as Paul McCartney, James Brown and Morrissey. While Costello later reassembled the Attractions (eventually swapping bassists to form the Imposters), Nieve still smarts at missing out on some Costello projects like the recent Wise Up Ghost, cut with the Roots. "I'd have loved to be involved with that," he says. "There's regret that that didn't happen."

But Nieve has found time for his own projects, such as staging and recording the opera Welcome to the Voice — composed with his romantic partner, French psychologist and filmmaker Muriel Teodori — and releasing solo albums such as last year's guest-laden ToGetHer.

And now he visits Portland, one of only seven stops on his U.S. tour, to explore some familiar music afresh, for once taking center stage — and, occasionally, the mic.

"Working with such a master of vocals [as Costello, singing] is daunting, but I've discovered singers that have given me more confidence," he says, citing Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt as examples. "There's a form of singing that is much more gentle, not in a traditional 'I'm-a-singer' manner. There's something very beautiful about that. And it's very hard to do, actually. It has to be very controlled. It's a pure kind of singing, and it gives me hope.

Steve Nieve plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Bill Wadhams of Animotion, on Tuesday, Sept. 23. 8 pm. $17 advance, $20 day of show. 21+.


Willamette Week, September 16, 2014

Jeff Rosenberg interviews Steve Nieve ahead of his solo concert, September 23, 2014, Mississippi Studios, Portland, OR.

Steve Nieve on his favorite Elvis Costello songs to play solo.


2014-09-16 Willamette Week photo 01.jpg

Top five favorite Elvis Costello songs to play solo

Steve Nieve

"(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" (This Year's Model, 1978)
Elvis writes killer rhythmic tunes. The Attractions arranged this into a beating stomper that always whips up the crowd. Now I found a new key and a new riff to play this song on the piano, like Terry Riley went to Mali.

"Shipbuilding" (Punch the Clock, 1983)
Great song, great tune composed by Clive Langer. They wrote it for my friend Robert Wyatt. I love playing this tune. It is a symphony of emotion: "Diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls." A tune that always brings forth a new surprise. Timeless.

"The Birds Will Still Be Singing" (The Juliet Letters, 1993)
Although this has such killer unusual melodic moments, super-classical and intricate, it also contains a passage or two of sublime simplicity that lends itself to a contemplative jazz mood. That makes a wonderful piano solo.

"God Give Me Strength" (Painted From Memory, 1998)
It has such an extraordinary melodic range and, again, contemplative jazz harmony. A Burt Bacharach collaboration for sure, but it sounds like pure Elvis to me.

"When It Sings" (North, 2003)
Elvis collaborated with me on a project called Welcome to the Voice [an opera written by Muriel Teodori], and it seems Muriel's subject interested him loads — look at all the songs about the "voice" he has composed since then. They all have one thing in common: unusual melodies and harmonies that make beautiful piano pieces.


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