Elvis Costello Sideman Steve Nieve: Rock's Greatest Keyboardist?

Proof: the Vox organ in "Watching the Detectives," for starters

There’s a case to be made for Steve Nieve as rock 'n' roll’s greatest keyboardist, at least as an accompanist. Ebony and ivory have lived together not just in perfect harmony but frenzied excitement as Nieve has been the dominant instrumental force in Elvis Costello’s Attractions and, subsequently, Imposters. The E Street Band’s Roy Bittan and Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench can match or beat him for band longevity and notoriety, but neither of those groups could ever count the piano as the lead instrument, the way that Costello so often handed that role over to his right-hand man.

Nieve has done his own solo albums and tours before, but this year marks the first time he’s done a tour consisting primarily of instrumental versions of Costello’s work, including classics like “Veronica” and “Accidents Will Happen” as well as more obscure material dating back to their first 1970s recordings. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Nieve following a stop at Los Angeles's Largo; his American tour — a must-see for Costello fans — wraps up with City Winery shows in Chicago Sept. 30 and New York City Oct. 3.

Why get around to doing concerts of Costello material now?

It was [my wife] Muriel’s idea, because I was sitting playing the piano at home, and she said, “You should make a series of albums playing the music of other artists.“ It seemed like a good place to start with Elvis Costello, because his music has been in my veins for 30 years. But the idea is really a series of albums. I’d like to do Steve Nieve Plays Brian Eno, and maybe Steve Nieve Plays Nina Simone. The last time I was in Australia, I recorded some songs by Lou Reed that I really love. Elvis’ compositions lend themselves to this sort of adaptation in a great way. He’s written in so many different genres. And he is well-known for his brilliant lyric writing, but with this, we show his other greatness: melody.

The first record you played on was “Watching the Detectives.” No one had ever heard an organ sound like that on a rock record. It was ominous, but at the same time witty. It was hard to tell in 1978 if you were doing something serious or a parody of soap opera music, which is what a lot of Americans still associated the organ with at the time.

A lot of it was searching for something a bit different, but also it was just practical. Piano has always been my main instrument since I was 4, and at the end of the day, I like to sit in front of a piano. But when I was about 16, I bought a Vox organ, so that just happened to be the keyboard that I had when I joined the Attractions, so it slipped in there naturally. “Watching the Detectives” is a genius-sounding record. It was masterminded by Nick Lowe, and I love the sound that he got out of that Vox organ on that song and This Year’s Model and subsequent albums. ... I once played on a record with David Bowie and Mick Jagger [“Dancing in the Streets”], and when we’d finished recording the take, I remember Bowie saying, “Anyone got an idea of what we could do with this?” And I said, “I’d love to put the Vox organ on that. I’ll just go and get it.” And apparently, when I went out of the room, Jagger said, “That’s the sound I hate the most in the world.” [Laughs] Needless to say, it didn’t end up on the final track.

In your show, you tell a story about the making of North, a concept album about the end of one relationship of Elvis’ and the beginning of another, his romance with Diana Krall. That’s a polarizing album, because it’s so different and so personal and intense, but it’s the album of Costello’s that showcases you most prominently.

It’s very much a piano and voice album, with arrangements around that core sort of feeling. And I think it’s one of Elvis’s, let’s say, darkest/lightest albums. [Laughs] Killer album.

So, as an accompanist on material like that, do you think about trying to accent what is happening thematically in the lyrics, or are you just trying to serve the musical arrangement?

I’m totally thinking about that all the time. At the Largo show, I had Joe Sumner [of the band Fiction Plane, and Sting’s son] as a guest, who sang a song called “Flutter and Wow,” which is a genius song. Every time I’ve listened to the song and we’ve performed it, I’ve imagined — and I’m sure I’m right — that this was written inspired by Diana and Elvis moving to the north of Canada and going across the bay. The lyrics conjure up this picture of Vancouver Island to me and things like that.

You’ve been changing up your set list from night to night. That’s to be expected from your background, since Costello never remotely does the same set twice, which must have drilled a spontaneity into you over the last 37 years. It's hard to imagine how many songs you have at your command...

I sometimes play alternative songs and pieces because I can’t fit everything in. But when you play with Elvis, you never quite know what’s going to happen. That’s why doing that “wheel” show wasn’t really such a challenge, because it’s always like that. I’ve worked with other artists where it’s the same show every night, and that has its good merits, in that it slowly gets better and better. I think that there’s a mindset on one side and a mindset on the other, and they both have their good points. But it must be kind of weird to do a show when everybody has read exactly [online] what’s going to happen. [Laughs] That must be harder to do.

Twitter: @chriswillman

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