Elvis Costello, Ben Folds
September 5, 2014
“How ‘bout my band tonight?” Ben Folds asked the audience, gesturing behind him to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The crowd responded with a throaty, rock ‘n’ roll roar. Although Folds and headliner Elvis Costello were atop the marquee, the Phil, led by conductor Scott Dunn, was the real star of the evening. The Hollywood Bowl’s resident orchestra has developed a well-deserved reputation over the years for providing brilliant accompaniment to a diverse array of pop and rock acts, from John Legend to Belle and Sebastian. Backing up two celebrated singer-songwriters on Friday, they did not disappoint.
In a way, it was an odd double bill. Costello and Folds may share a gift for clever wordplay and tricky melodies, but the similarities end there. Where Costello constantly experiments with a laundry list of styles and collaborators, from The Roots to Burt Bacharach, Folds rarely strays far from the piano-pop that got him started – though he did on Friday. And while Costello is sometimes guilty of taking himself too seriously, Folds remains, by contrast, addicted to playing the smart aleck.
Not surprisingly, the two men made use of the Phil in strikingly different ways.
Folds, in the midst of an international tour with various orchestras, took the more conventional approach. The string arrangements on “Jesusland” and “Landed” hewed closely to the studio originals, lush and highly indebted to Madman Across the Water-era Elton John.
When Folds and the Phil got more experimental, the results were occasionally thrilling. “Narcolepsy,” one of the oddest tracks from his early catalog with the Ben Folds Five, swelled to a cacophonous climax. For his latest work, a classical piece called “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” Folds reached inside his Steinway to pluck the strings while grandiose, Tchaikovsky-like surges of strings and horns swirled behind him.
Ever the wiseass, Folds concluded his brief set with a jokey Ben Folds Five chestnut, “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” It was a smart, high-energy finish to a set that otherwise mostly steered clear of his ‘90s alt-rock roots. It was also a great excuse to hear eight classically trained singers – Folds’ touring chorus – have fun chanting the outro verse, “Kiss my ass goodbye now.”
Costello, looking sharp in a black ascot and red fedora, treated the Phil more like a Count Basie-style big band orchestra. Backed by a core trio of his longtime Attractions pianist, Stevie Nieve, and his wife Diana Krall’s rhythm section, Costello often seemed to be channeling Van Morrison, crooning, belting and – occasionally – over-singing jazzed-up versions of songs spanning his entire 37-year career.
After starting strong with a sparse rendition of “Accidents Will Happen” from 1979’s Armed Forces, Costello’s set lost some momentum with a poorly arranged version of “Veronica,” a 1989 co-write with Paul McCartney, and the title track from 1996’s forgettable All This Useless Beauty. He rebounded with “The Girl in the Other Room,” a song he co-wrote for Krall in 2004, which gave Nieve a chance to flash his considerable jazz chops and seemed to wake up upright bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Karriem Riggins.
The rest of Costello’s set was assured and often brilliant, especially a Henry Mancini-like rework of “Watching the Detectives” and a dramatic new arrangement of title track from his most recent album, his Roots collaboration Wise Up Ghost. That and “Bedlam,” from 2004’s The Delivery Man, were nice reminders that, after losing the plot a bit in the ‘90s, Costello has rebounded over the past decade to write songs on par with his classic late ‘70s/early ‘80s catalog.
Speaking of that catalog: Wisely, Costello let the Philharmonic sit back and join the rest of the Bowl audience as spectators while he and Nieve delivered the encore, a beautiful acoustic-guitar-and-piano reading of “Alison” from his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True. Some songs, even after nearly four decades, don’t need an orchestra to make an impact.
Set list below
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (3rd Movement)
One Angry Dwarf
Accidents Will Happen
All This Useless Beauty
The Girl in the Other Room
Wise Up Ghost
Watching the Detectives
God Give Me Strength