NEW YORK -- Elvis Costello appeared to be amused.
The genre-jumping, former new-wave icon and his current musical partner, veteran
hitmaker Burt Bacharach, were about to play what Costello called their first official live
show together, spotlighting songs from their joint CD, Painted From Memory,
released Sept. 29.
But first, the famously acerbic singer/songwriter, whose black-clad ensemble was broken
only by flashes of yellow on his tie, couldn't resist commenting upon the oddness of the
venue for their free, Saturday-night performance.
"This is the first time I've ever played in a concert hall with an escalator in the middle of
it," Costello said, as he and Bacharach stood on a tiny stage in the gleaming, cavernous
depths of the lower level of the newly opened Virgin Megastore in Manhattan's
Despite minimal publicity for the appearance, hundreds of fans, mostly in their 20s and
30s, packed the store to see the two legendary songwriters perform together. The
performance served as a preview of Costello and Bacharach's brief upcoming tour and
also featured an autograph-signing session. Most of the audience appeared to be fans of
Costello rather than Bacharach, but many toted copies of the new album and seemed
to know the album's co-written songs already.
Michael Farragher is a 45-year-old Manhattan fan who remembers seeing Costello
perform in the late '70s with the Attractions, Costello's hard-rocking, new-wave backup
band. At the record-store performance, Farragher said that he wouldn't have believed
back then that he'd someday see Costello perform with Bacharach, the writer of such
soft-pop hits as "Walk On By" (1964) and "I Say a Little Prayer" (1967).
"It's been a remarkable musical journey," Farragher said. "And [this is] a wonderful
pairing of musical ideas. You can't deny the feeling in Bacharach's piano playing."
With Bacharach playing delicate piano accompaniment, Costello began the short set
with Painted From Memory's
(RealAudio excerpt), singing the song's witty, urbane lyrics carefully but passionately, in
a vibrato-laden croon that showed little trace of his rock roots.
Costello started off singing with one hand placed casually in his pocket, in a style closer
to that of the late, great crooner Frank Sinatra than that of a pioneering rocker. But on
emotional songs, such as the new album's "This House Is Empty Now," he abandoned
the laid-back pose. Instead, Costello gripped the microphone-stand tightly, swaying it
back and forth as he sang so fiercely that his face went flush.
Bacharach's piano performance was no less impassioned, as he displayed his
celebrated melodic sense with impromptu fills and filigrees that took the place of the
more elaborate arrangements on the duo's album. The grandfatherly Bacharach,
dressed in a blue sweater over a white polo shirt -- a la children's television
personality Mr. Rogers -- could occasionally be seen mouthing the words to the songs as
Costello sang them.
The duo also worked its way through two other songs from Painted From Memory:
the title track and "I Still Have That Other Girl in My Head." The performance concluded
href="http://www.addict.com/music/Costello,_Elvis/God_Give_Me_Strength.ram">"God Give Me Strength"
Give Me Strength"(RealAudio excerpt), a song -- included on both the
soundtrack to the movie "Grace of My Heart" and Painted From Memory -- that
marked the genesis of Bacharach and Costello's collaboration.
Though there was no denying that the brightly lit, ultra-modern "megastore" was a
bizarre setting for a low-key, piano-and-vocal performance of the duo's melancholy
songs of heartbreak, the audience greeted each song with respectful silence, then
raucous applause, which visibly pleased Bacharach and Costello.
"We're glad to see you want to hear the new songs," Costello said from the stage.
The duo encored with an intense version of Bacharach and Hal David's '60s classic
"Make It Easy on Yourself," which was recorded by pop singer Dionne Warwick, the
performer most associated with Bacharach-David tunes. Costello promised from the
stage that his and Bacharach's upcoming tour would feature performances of other
Bacharach classics as well as Costello's own songs. "I can't tell you how much I'm
enjoying working with this gentleman," he said of Bacharach.
As he waited for post-performance autographs in a line that stretched throughout the
store's bottom floor, Joshua Hertz, a 23-year-old Manhattanite, praised the show.
"It was great. Those are hard songs to sing live, and it must be odd at this stage in
[Costello's] career to have people walking in and out like that," he said, referring to
people walking on the same escalator that Costello had noticed.
As he signed autographs, Costello, now wearing a black fur hat and a yellow scarf, said
that he didn't really mind the escalator. "I loved it. It was like having a stage show," he
said, his grin revealing the famous gap between his front teeth.
Following the performance, Bacharach expressed delight at the audience's reaction. "It
was a fantastic response, a wonderful crowd," he said. Costello echoed him: "It was
tremendous; it was unbelievable. I mean, we didn't know what it would be like, playing
intimate songs in a place like this with all [the] bright lights."
The duo's tour will begin Oct. 13 with a show at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan and
will continue with shows in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Universal City, Calif.