Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach

at the Chicago Theatre, October 16

By Tim Sheridan

Maybe it’s fear of mortality that has some folks freaking out about the recent musical marriage between Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. Despite the new martini craze, many thirtysomethings associate Bacharach with their parents–whom they’re trying desperately not to become right now–while Costello debuted just as many of us began to think of ourselves as individuals…misunderstood, disenfranchised individuals. His terrific cool-dork style, punk spirit, and mastery of the vicious lyric offered release and relief to anyone who was ever blown off, lied to, or even just miscellaneously dissed. For these fans Bacharach and Costello’s collaboration on an entire album, Painted From Memory (Mercury), is akin to matter touching antimatter, and to see them sharing the same stage must result in either a final truce between the inner child and the outer adult or an utter immolating mindfuck.

In fact, anyone who has even casually followed Costello’s career should have seen this coming, not least those fans who tuned out in the mid-80s, when he began to show signs of overt sentimentality on albums like Imperial Bedroom, Punch the Clock, and Goodbye Cruel World. These “purists” thought he was better suited to carry the cynical banner of “I’m Not Angry” than the torch of “The Only Flame in Town,” but they were wearing blinders. For all his early punk posturing, Costello has always been a sucker for romantic pop. His heart’s been on his sleeve since his debut. “Alison,” his breakthrough ballad–which Linda Ronstadt saw fit to cover in 1978–could well have been written by Bacharach and his longtime lyricist Hal David. The mix of clever wordplay and heartbreaking minor chords as the singer makes a last-ditch plea to his married former lover shares a familial bond with songs like “Walk On By” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” Costello even performed the Bacharach/David tune “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” in concert in the late 70s.

To understand Bacharach’s motivation, however, it’s more instructive to look at Tony Bennett’s career. After Bennett’s son and manager resuscitated his father’s ailing career with a jolt of MTV respectability–Costello performed with him on Unplugged in 1994–other easy-listening stars began to recognize similar opportunities. Bacharach may well admire Costello’s songwriting talent, but Elvis is also sure to draw a younger crowd than, say, Carole Bayer Sager.

The orchestra assembled at the Chicago Theatre, with 16-piece string section, full horn complement, and no fewer than three keyboardists (including Steve Nieve of Costello’s band the Attractions), indicated that this was going to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. As the lights went down, Costello, offstage, introduced Bacharach by singing a verse from his “Baby It’s You.” Bacharach himself strode onstage to his grand piano, debonair as could be in a gray suit with no tie and a breast-pocket handkerchief. When the orchestra swirled into the refrain of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” a few chuckles could be heard amid the applause, and when Costello joined Bacharach, wearing a black tuxedo, the grins the men exchanged seemed to acknowledge the joke. Still, they seemed to genuinely click, each basking in the glow of the other’s audience, and the mood was infectious. Costello made a crack about his penguin suit when he briefly strapped on an electric guitar over it, and Bacharach laughed when his mention of Vic Damone elicited polite applause.

The first set featured songs from the new album, and it was clearly Costello’s favorite part of the night. In the position of idols like Bennett and Frank Sinatra, he dove into the songs with more finesse and detail than he does on the album, and though his singing still wasn’t note perfect he didn’t have to strain as much to reach the higher registers. Songs that seem labored or heavy-handed on the record, like “This House Is Empty Now” and “Tears at the Birthday Party,” here took on an immediate poignancy. The true fruits of the songwriting union were also more readily apparent, as on “Toledo,” where Bacharach’s trademark proto-samba is an ideal setting for Costello’s sly verbal gymnastics. Despite a few histrionic crescendos and some sappy synthesizer work, the arrangements played out with panache.

Costello then left the stage to let Bacharach run through his own incredible repertoire. Starting with his work for films and moving on to other pop tunes, the composer led the orchestra and a trio of singers in a medley of so many favorites that some tunes, like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” were represented by just a few signature bars. His vocals on “Alfie” brought a tremendous response, despite his rather weak whisper of a voice. In Costello’s turn at bat, a careful sampling of tunes from his back catalog emphasized the similarities with Bacharach, and most were newly arranged for the evening. “Accidents Will Happen” and “Alison” both featured ornamental string introductions and Nieve embroidered “Veronica” with exceptionally baroque keyboardisms.

The two reunited at the end of the show in a mix of new and old tunes, such as the alarmingly desolate “In the Darkest Place,” from Painted From Memory, and a winning take on “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” With each encore they seemed more pleased with the way the evening had turned out–perhaps they, too, had feared that their distinct pasts would catch up with them, bogging them down in self-parody. Instead they forged a joyful synthesis between their old selves and their new ones. We should all be so lucky.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Paul Natkin.