Judging by the number of vacant seats in Melbourne's Recital Centre on Friday night Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello is a difficult concept to sell. Not for this long-term Costello fan, of course. Not, for that matter for Hughesy's brother, who probably wouldn't recognise a Costello song if it came up and bit him in the leg. But he was impressed. So was I.
But, judging by the number of empty seats in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, we must be talking a very tiny niche market. Or something else that would draw off punters. Or inadequate or ill-directed publicity. Maybe they'd all stayed home to watch the AFL semi-final between Sydney and North Melbourne. Or something.
Steve's keyboard work has, over the years, been one of the main ingredients in the Costello sound, And the "Joanna" segment, when the Spinning Songbook picked it out, has been a regular highlight of those musical extravaganzas. "Joanna" invariably signals a spell on the grand piano, which is what we were looking at here (predictably, a Steinway). The segment usually includes She, which didn't seem to appear here, Shot With His Own Gun, which did and provided one of a number of highlights, and God Give Me Strength.
As one of my all-time favourite Costello numbers, you'd reckon Hughesy would have picked up on it if it was played on the night, but Steve did a rather good job of camouflaging some of the selections. The Astute Reader will no doubt pick up on that by the unidentified numbers in the set list.
Some of the selections listed only appear because Steve identified them by name and narrative.
Or maybe that's it. Maybe there's no market, or no interest, in reworkings of Costello material into grand piano extemporisations. Anyone looking for a by the numbers reproduction of the Costello catalogue would have been extremely disappointed. But from the opening strains of Muriel on Main Beach through to the end of Beyond Belief we got a good hour and a half of pianistic pyrotechnics. It was a performance that underlined the fact that the former Royal College of Music could probably have gone on to a fair career as a concert pianist.
There's a bit more to it than that. According to one of the monologues that interspersed the musical selections Steve always wanted to be in a rock band, though the news that their eighteen-year-old son had become an Attraction apparently reduced his parents to tears. He was also the choir master or organist at the local church, and familiarity with the draw bars on a Hammond organ allegedly helped get him the keyboard job ahead of the competition.
But, in the end, it all comes down to what was played, and the performance had Hughesy kicking himself at having skipped Brisbane and Sydney. Perth was probably a bridge or Nullarbor too far, but repeated exposure might have allowed me to fill in some of those question marks in the set list.
In summary, an excellent performance by a master of his art. More please, though one notes the extreme unlikeliness of a repeat performance in Melbourne.
Among the links below, on the other hand, there's a mention of an official release of recordings from the Australian tour (and possibly elsewhere. I'll be buying...
Muriel on Main Beach
The Birds Will Still Be singing
Accidents Will Happen
The Loved Ones
The Long Honeymoon
Shot With His Own Gun
Welcome to the Voice
Beyond Belief (request)
Five note improvisation (C,F,A, B flat, F)
Five note EC themed improvisation (D, D, F, E, C)
The Attraction Of Steve Nieve
Melbourne Fringe review: Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello
Performing Arts Hub