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Rosanne Cash/ Elvis Costello

Artists often go to great pains to scout offbeat locations to stage "special" performances, only to turn up and turn in the same old song and dance -- a pitfall Rosanne Cash and Elvis Costello deftly sidestepped at this conceptually driven program.

Artists often go to great pains to scout offbeat locations to stage “special” performances, only to turn up and turn in the same old song and dance — a pitfall Rosanne Cash and Elvis Costello deftly sidestepped at this conceptually driven program.

Intimate is a word that’s often thrown around in reference to small-room gigs, but it’s unlikely that either of this bill’s marquee names had ever staged a Gotham perf with a closeness so extreme that neither amplification nor microphones were used. That was the case during this 70-minute show, a fundraiser for the Rubin Museum, an institution dedicated to preserving the art of the Himalayas.

Cash opened the evening with a dissertation on the importance of “magic numbers” in the practice of Buddhism before launching into a sultry, torch song-like rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “One.” Her slightly downcast manner was tempered by the appearance of a surprisingly avuncular Elvis Costello, who announced his presence with a surprisingly swinging, grit-laced take on the soul classic “99 and a Half.”

The pair — augmented by guitarist and frequent Cash collaborator John Leventhal — swapped lead vocals smartly throughout the show, drawing from sources as diverse as The Lovin’ Spoonful (whose “Six O’Clock” took on a Mersey-ish lilt in Costello’s hands) and Marc Cohn’s “Three Steps Down” (which Cash rendered as an extended, poignant sigh).

They only joined forces a few times over the course of the show — most successfully on a bittersweet version of The Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” That avoidance was probably a wise idea, since Costello unintentionally overpowered Cash’s fragile, measured delivery when he cut loose — as he invariably did — at full lung power.

There was no sense of one-upmanship in Costello’s manner, however. In fact, he seemed more playful and self-effacing than at any time in recent memory — particularly when he tested his breath control (not to mention his memory) with a sped-up take on “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

Cash, who exhibited a bit more gravity during most of her leads — a mood she attributed to the fresh loss of both a close friend and the childhood home that burned to the ground earlier in the week — perked up a bit by set’s end as well, romping through an earthy “Six Days on the Road.”

 The loosey-goosey attitude displayed by the performers — combined with the offbeat repertoire choices — turned what could have been a hokey exercise into an irresistible sonic buffet, and transformed a museum space into a perfect spot for a hootenanny.

Rosanne Cash/ Elvis Costello

Rubin Museum of Art; 155 capacity; $65.

  • Production: Presented in-house. Reviewed April 13, 2006.
  • Crew:
  • Cast: Musicians: Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, John Leventhal.
  • Music By: