Arlington Heights Daily Herald, December 2, 2008

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Costello makes a 'Spectacle' of himself
— and fellow songwriters

Ted Cox

Tired of rote, by-the-numbers music performances punctuated by obsequious interviews on late-night talk shows? If so, does the Sundance Channel have a program for you.

None other than Elvis Costello plays host to the new series Spectacle when it debuts at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3, on Sundance. Subtitled Elvis Costello With..., the premiere finds him sitting down — and sometimes playing — with Elton John.

The show opens routinely enough with Elvis — the good one, not the dead one — doing a version of Elton's "Border Song." Then, in fact, he does his best James Lipton imitation by introducing "Sir Elton John" and doing him honors. Truth be told, at first there's an air about them of two self-satisfied Englishmen stuffed with roast beef and sitting down after dinner at their gentlemen's club.

A music fan might expect this of Elton, the rock 'n' roll Liberace, the former hit maker who in more recent decades has become a troubadour of dead princesses and AIDS victims, but whatever happened to the angry young Elvis who mixed punk outrage with exquisite tunecraft?

Yet give them a few minutes to warm to each other and they soon get going on just that craftsmanship, celebrating nearly forgotten songwriters like Laura Nyro and David Ackles, as well as obscure soul singers like Billy Stewart and Chicago's own Major Lance.

"We're music crazy, both of us," Elton says, and indeed they are, in only the best way. Elton mentions how the Band's Music From Big Pink influenced his early album Tumbleweed Connection, and Elvis talks openly about how Elton was the one who turned him on to Rufus Wainwright and Amy Winehouse. They come off as two impassioned fans rather than a couple of jaded bizzers. Then, just to remind a viewer what pros they are, they do a few songs together, with the help of sideman Allen Toussaint.

After the slow start, it turns into a lovely hour, and it's no accident. Next week's follow-up finds Elvis welcoming Lou Reed to the stage at the Apollo Theater in New York City, where the 13-part series is taped. He opens with a folky reworking of Lou's "Femme Fatale" (which also plays to Elvis' own penchant for offhand misogyny), and before long Lou is sitting down to discuss songwriter Doc Pomus and demonstrating the "secret chord" in the trademark progression to "Sweet Jane."

Lou comes as close as any critic to defining what set his Velvet Underground apart in the '60s by saying they totally rejected any hint of blue riffs in their music. "We didn't have the right," he says, and indeed that's a large part of what makes the Velvets sound as edgy today as they did back then, while blues-based groups like Steppenwolf sound rooted to the late '60s.

It's not just music, either. Julian Schnabel pops in next week as well, and while I think Lou is perfectly capable of holding forth for an hour himself, same as Elton, who's to argue with the visionary director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? And the week after that, Bill Clinton sits in.

Look for Elvis to find distracting topics of conversation to keep Bill away from his saxophone.

Spectacle isn't a perfect program. It can indulge in cliché crowd reaction shots, and Elvis can be obsequious at times. Later in the season he'll indulge in a little nepotism by welcoming his wife, Diana Krall, to the show, and he'll also spend time with well-meaning over-the-hillers like James Taylor and Tony Bennett. Yet Rufus Wainwright himself and Elvis' punk-pop contemporaries the Police are also on the guest list, and the first season — one can only hope this is the first of many — ends with Smokey Robinson.

So forget Elvis the angry young punk. He might have made better music than his middle-aged incarnation, but as a music fan and a craftsman he's much more engaging as host of Spectacle. This is a warm, intelligent series to get any music fan through the cold winter months ahead.


The Daily Herald, June 12, 2006

Mark Guarino previews Spectacle: Elvis Costello with....


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