Elvis Costello, the knock-kneed, gap-toothed Angry Thin Man of mid-'70s pub/punk/new wave rock who once identified his exclusive motivations as revenge and guilt, has settled into friendly middle age as the host of his own music-themed Sundance Channel talk show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with ....
Elton John, an executive producer, is the guest on tonight's premiere. Lou Reed, James Taylor, Rufus Wainwright, Smokey Robinson, Kris Kristofferson, Renee Fleming and others — including former President Bill Clinton, introduced as "a little-known saxophone player from the little town of Hope, Ark." — will follow over the next 12 weeks.
Fame attracts fame, and the guest list seems to have been drawn substantially from Costello's own Rolodex — even Clinton is someone Elvis has met before. Costello got married at John's place. He's had Thanksgiving with Tony Bennett. Jenny Lewis sang on his last album and he sang on hers. He was just on tour with the Police. He's married to Diana Krall (who'll be interviewed by producer John instead). Certainly, the roster is a reflection of his own taste, which is both catholic and rooted in old-fashioned ideas of song craft and musicianship.
Not excluding Clinton, it's a matter of player meeting player. And though there is always the danger of a lay audience being cut out of that kind of conversation, it also leads the talk down roads less traveled in the context of a TV talk show. Musicians often fare poorly in that venue, either because interviewers are insufficiently schooled in how music is made or because they are overcome by their own fandom.
Costello (who has subbed for David Letterman) makes a fine host — a bit reverential at times, but never as pious as, say, James Lipton can become over at the similarly configured Inside the Actors Studio. He's interested, he listens and he doesn't particularly draw the spotlight to himself. The show's hour length leaves time for music — performed by Elvis, his guest and possibly the two together — while leaving the talk room to breathe.
Each of the four episodes I've seen has its own character. John's is the most fun, for his enthusiasm — it is mostly about his roots and influences — and for his vigorous from-the-piano lecture demonstrations. Talking to a peer, Reed is more comfortable than usual, admitting of songwriting, "I don't understand how it's done." Bennett gives Costello access to talk about the Great American Songbook and says of current music that there are "too many drums" and "too much screeching." But he approves of the iPod, which he believes frees audience choice from corporate tyranny.
Most interesting is the Clinton interview, which sticks pretty much to the subject of music. Costello takes Clinton's saxophone playing not as a novelty but as central to his being and part and parcel of his success as a communicator; Clinton does not disagree.
"When you play, you play to one person as if you were playing to a million," he says, "and if you play to a million, you play as if you were playing to one." He likens speech-making to jazz: "Sometimes I'll get into some kind of rhetorical riff," he says, but mostly he likes to speak from an outline or memory, "because you have to ad lib a little, you have to know where you are with the audience and in a moment in time."
Though Clinton says he still plays, he does not whip out his ax to jam with the host.