Costello with symphony a mesmerizing night
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
A few of the favorites were there: "Veronica." "Watching the Detectives." "Alison."
All of them performed by Elvis Costello accompanied by the Honolulu Symphony Pops at the Blaisdell Concert Hall last night.
All longtime fans had to do was accept the fact that the chameleon-like musician who had composed these most elegant nuggets of pop and rock songwriting had long ago moved on to other musical realms and had taken a few of his beloved works with him.
"Alison" with its melancholy electric ax and sparest of snares? No more. "Watching the Detectives" with its delicious backbone of rude boy reggae? So 1977!
If you didn't accept it, you were a goner from the get-go. One who perhaps simply should have known before you bought a ticket that "accompanied by the Honolulu Symphony Pops" meant no sign of The Attractions/Impostors (save for Steve Nieve on piano) and no "Pump It Up" or "Girls Talk."
For the rest of us waiting years for his first-ever Honolulu concert, however, Costello's moodily jazzy 90-minute second set of symphony-friendly lesser-known gems, new material and old favorites was pretty much complicated nirvana.
Complicated, because in return for our long wait, we got Costello in full-on crooner-with-an-orchestra mode — singing pretty much ballads, and only ballads. Nirvana, because in spite of the dearth of more up-tempo faves we still got to hear Costello's stunning, inimitable voice at what truly seemed like the peak all of its live, tenderly ragged glory.
The evening opened with the Pops running through a 40-minute suite of music from Costello's inaugural orchestral work, "Il Sogno," composed as music for an Italian ballet of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Elvis introduced it, then let the symphony go to work.
Showy with various spirited scene-painting experiments in jazz and symphonic melody, the suite was pleasant enough. But cut to a fraction its original length, it seemed an unsatisfying truncation of an accomplished orchestral work best heard in full.
But, of course, "Il Sogno" wasn't what the bulk of very vocal fans in the concert hall came primarily to hear. And Costello seemed more than happy to oblige them.
Costello's vocal time included several arrangements of new and older material from his recently released jazz-infused live orchestral CD, "My Flame Burns Blue." The best of these was the first, a gorgeous reading of his own "Upon A Veil Of Midnight Blue" featuring Costello's warm croon wrapped in elegantly lush symphony pops orchestration.
Already one of Costello's most haunting jazz-perfect ballads, "Almost Blue" couldn't — and didn't — fail to amaze in a symphonic setting. Likewise, "God Give Me Strength" and "I Still Have That Other Girl" — from Costello's underrated Burt Bacharach collaboration "Painted From Memory" — proved perfect fits for the vocalist's lovesick crooner set list.
Sadly left out were last night were nearly all of the "My Flame" disc's best up-tempo big band moments. These included Costello's inventive vocal take on the Charles Mingus instrumental "Hora Decubitus," a way snazzy arrangement of '50s bandleader Dave Bartholomew's "That's How You Got Killed Before" and a defiantly love-it-or-hate-it "Clubland."
If you own "My Flame," you know why each was sorely missed last night.
Costello was wise, however, to keep the CD's kinetic new take on "Watching the Detectives" with its swinging 1950s television cop show instrumental punch. It won't replace the original in any Costello devotee's heart anytime soon. But it proved great fun last night.
A lovely reading of "Still" from Costello's disc of piano ballads "North" proved an audience favorite, as was a note perfect cover of Charles Aznavour's "She" — the latter a worldwide hit, "everywhere but in Hawai'i," he joked.
"I knew there was something I forgot when I came out here," said Costello, early in his vocal set, pretend searching the stage. "Let me go get it."
Exiting the stage briefly, he re-emerged with his acoustic guitar, strapping it on to roars from the crowd.
"I'm gonna do this on my own if it's OK," he asked maestro Matt Catingub and the symphony pops, before sharing a menacingly powerful "The River in Reverse," the title track from his upcoming CD with New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint. It wound up one of the show's most mesmerizing moments.
Costello kept his guitar strapped and was joined by Nieve only on a pulsating, sweetly Buddy Holly-ish stab at "Veronica." Near show's end, "Alison" — with Costello on guitar, Nieve on piano and rich symphony strings accompanying — soothed an audience that had been eagerly waiting for it.
Between songs, Costello — looking smart as all heck in a dressy black suit and bow tie — turned impressive charmer, tempering what could have been an at times moody set with playful banter and a wicked sense of humor.
A friend and longtime Costello fan accompanying me last night giddily summed up the evening of the vocalist in peak form.
"He's kind of like a kid in the symphony candy store tonight, isn't he?" my friend marveled.
Uh-huh. And we were all fortunate he was in the mood to share.
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.