“Somehow I never imagined I’d be playing this guitar while wearing this tuxedo,” Elvis Costello joked during his Universal Amphitheatre performance with Burt Bacharach on Tuesday, indicating the electric guitar he used to accompany an orchestrated version of his 1977 ballad “Alison.” “You never know where the road is going to take you.”
Although the song’s bittersweet message to a lost love demonstrated that Costello was a Bacharach fan 20 years ago, back then it would have been hard to imagine that England’s biggest New Wave hothead would end up performing brokenhearted ballads co-written with his idol. Or that American pop icon Bacharach would play piano and conduct a 26-piece orchestra featuring Costello’s longtime keyboardist, Steve Nieve. Or, for that matter, that Costello’s hyperkinetic ways could ever mesh with Bacharach’s easygoing style.
Having employed their shared fascination with romantic pain to a sublime end on their new album, “Painted From Memory,” this unlikely pair proved to be perfect stage collaborators as well. They satisfied just about any wish fans might have had, performing all their new songs as well as individual half-hour sets of their own material.
Using subtle theatrical gestures to underscore a variety of emotional details, Costello left plenty of room for listeners to shade in their own feelings during such standouts as the poignant “This House Is Empty Now” and the plaintive “God Give Me Strength.” Since Bacharach had tailored the songs to the younger man’s voice, Costello’s singing displayed more range than ever, although high notes were occasionally a shaky proposition.
Buoyantly leading the orchestra from his piano bench, Bacharach probably enjoyed himself even more than his counterpart. His solo set amounted to a mostly lighthearted medley featuring snippets of everything from "(Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” to “Walk On By” to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” mostly sung by the backing vocalists. His own, more serious turn at the reflective “Alfie” quietly emphasized how profound and enduring pop music can be.
Bacharach’s program also pointed to an influence on modern music that’s so pervasive it’s virtually subliminal. Although he has recently become “hip,” his songs never went out of style, and they never will.
For an artist who has remained a beloved cult figure in spite of efforts to appease the mainstream, Costello revealed growing signs of timelessness in his own set. His and Nieve’s arrangements made such classics as “Alison” sound natural in this setting, though a funereal incarnation of the bubbly “Veronica” proved jarring. But as the shattering sentiments of “Almost Blue” demonstrated, Costello’s work may one day be every bit as ingrained as Bacharach’s.