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.