Oh, the Grandeur!

Elvis Costello & Steve Nieve

Arie Crown Theater - Chicago

October 15, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 1999, Volume 6, #12

Written by John Metzger


There was a point in time when Elvis Costello was the rebellious angry, young man. Remember his first appearance on Saturday Night Live? He looked like he was coming apart at the seams drunk as could be and angry at his record company as well as the world. Yet, his gutsy move worked. Everyone was talking about the newcomer who had halted a song midstream before launching into another. Thus, his career took a turn for the better.

Now, nearly 25 years later, Costello has gracefully packed up his anger and his youth and shipped them off to a far distant island. For the past few years, he's toured as the timeless crooner acoustic guitar in hand and former Attraction bandmate Steve Nieve at his side and seemingly shifted the entire direction of his career. Or has he? Costello has long adored the music of Burt Bacharach and regularly performed his songs in concert. Last year, Costello took his music full-circle, pairing up with Bacharach for an album and tour. Knowing this, the change in style really doesn't look all that unusual, and instead it seems carefully planned.

In 1996, Costello and Nieve made Chicago one of the few stops on their North American tour, which now appears to have been the debut of this phase of their musical journey. On October 15, the duo returned to Chicago for a less intimate, but no less potent, performance at the Arie Crown Theater.

Costello didn't stick completely to the role of balladeer, and occasionally revved up the tempo for a few rock 'n' roll selections. During several of these, Nieve left the stage, and Costello assumed a more playful mood. Consequently, Radio Sweetheart made the smooth transition into Van Morrison's Jackie Wilson Said, and The Beatles' You've Got to Hide Your Love Away fit snugly inside New Amsterdam. When Nieve remained, he often worked a synthesizer into the up-tempo songs, though this remained more subtle nuance than anything else. It worked best on Green Shirt, turning the song into a swirling maelstrom of sound, which was further enhanced by the edgy guitar work of Costello.

However, it was the slower selections that received Costello's greatest concentration. With graceful ease he succeeded in transforming older material to fit his new emotionally-charged, jazz-tinged style. Party Girl began as a whisper, gradually expanding in volume before Costello was left crying, "I could give you anything but time."

In addition, it is on the ballads that Costello and Nieve most perfectly complement each other. Not surprisingly, they always have matched up well. Just listen to the album Armed Forces, paying close attention to Nieve's contributions. It's certainly the groundwork for the music these two gifted artists are making today.

Nieve impeccably sets the mood for the songs, pitting the majestic ebb and flow of notes against thunderous chords that crash like waves. His playing both encapsulates and enhances the emotion in Costello's craggy voice. The two delivered a stunning rendition of This House is Empty Now, which concluded with Costello slowly stepping back from the microphone. As he retreated, his voice began to drift off, leaving a faint echo and an almost silent piano accompaniment that captured the quiet desperation of the song.

Throughout his career, Elvis Costello has never been content to stay in one place for too long. He seems to take a style or theme as far as he possibly can, and then just as suddenly, he will change direction, exploring something that's new yet shares characteristics of his earlier work. Time will only tell what he has hidden up his sleeve, and on which pathway he will dare his audience to follow him. For now, he seems content to revisit his extensive catalog and show the world the grandeur that was there all along.

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Copyright 1999 The Music Box