Wednesday, October 01, 2014

As Main Attraction, Pianist Steve Nieve Keys Further Appreciation of Elvis Costello -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Steve Nieve
plays Elvis Costello
with special guest Tall Ulysse
City Winery, Chicago
September 30, 2014

You can't really be a fan of rock music without a love of guitar, bass and drums.

But perhaps due to my fanaticism for Bruce Springsteen, and Born to Run being my all-time favorite album, I relish when rock songs abundantly feature piano.

Not surprisingly, the E Street Band's Roy Bittan has long been my favorite rock pianist--outside singing piano men like Elton John and Billy Joel--with Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) and Craig Frost (of Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band) being other great piano-playing sidemen.

Another of the very best is Steve Nieve, a constant collaborator of Elvis Costello's, dating back to joining the Attractions in 1977.

Tuesday night at a City Winery show of his own, Nieve told the story of his audition and selection after answering an ad while an 18-year-old student at the Royal College of Music in London.

To hear this and other anecdotes--including a charming one about selecting just the right Steinway piano to use on Costello's North album--was rather fascinating for longtime Elvis fanatics. I also liked learning that at the height of the London Punk era, both Costello and Nieve had an abiding love of ABBA.

And hearing the prodigiously fluent Nieve decorate Costello gems such as "Shipbuilding," "Accidents Will Happen" and "Veronica" with 88-key flourishes was even more of a joy.

Attending with my friend Paolo--an even bigger Elvis Costello fan--with tickets that were just $11 + fees thanks to a Goldstar discount for the undersold show, I didn't need much more than the above for it to be an enjoyable and worthwhile evening. Though we're still not sure how a drink and a burger each amounted to a $70+ tab.

After beginning the show with a non-Elvis piano piece of his own--"Muriel on the Beach," which Nieve noted was named for his wife--he played a few Costello interpretations alone before bringing a guest vocalist named Tall Ulysse on-stage.

The true-to-his-name lanky Frenchman accompanied Nieve on a nice version of Costello's most obvious piano-laden song, "Almost Blue," another of the night's clear highlights.

There was nothing unpleasant about anything else Ulysse or Nieve did--and I didn't arrive expecting merely Elvis' Greatest Hits on piano--but new songs written by one or both of the men onstage, a tune sung in French and some more obscure Costello works that neither Paolo or I recognized didn't emotionally enamor like the famous melodies.

As Nieve--who proved a rather engaging raconteur--proffered from the stage, in mounting a brief Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello tour, an artistic aim was to demonstrate that his longtime mate was not only a brilliant lyricist but a gifted melodicist.

This was certainly accomplished in part, but with as much time devoted to non- and obscure Costello songs as those readily familiar--and I own virtually every album Elvis has released, so don't just mean "Alison" or "Watching the Detectives"--I wasn't so much enlightened as simply entertained.

Nieve sounded terrific playing anything, but along with some more recognizable material, I would have appreciated being told what some of the less-obvious selections were. I actually asked Nieve to clue me in about one after the show; turned out it was "The Loved Ones."

Having seen Costello himself do a rather intimate solo show in June at which he did performed some beautiful piano-and-vocal renditions, this unique gig was--aptly, given Nieve's long and collaborative partnership--a fine accompaniment, but far from as scintillating throughout.

I was hoping for something a bit more akin to what classical pianist Christopher O'Riley has done with his interpretations of Radiohead songs: showcase known tunes in a new light to highlight the possibly deceptive melodic depth that was always there.

Although this show was openly promoted to primarily attact Elvis Costello devotees, I perceive--and even respect--that Steve Nieve wanted to do more than simply mine the best material that the man born Declan MacManus has put into the world.

But while we were sent out happily into the night with a fun audience singalong of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," I think Nieve strayed a bit too far from what would have been more obvious and--likely, for me--pleasing.

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