New Jersey Star-Ledger, August 9, 2008

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Spectacle format lets Costello bring out
the best in his guests

Jay Lustig

It's a dream job.

As host of the upcoming television series, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With..., the ever-adventurous rocker gets to conduct in-depth discussions with musical icons, and perform with them. "If Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Groucho Marx walked out at this moment, I couldn't be more thrilled," he said, Wednesday night at the Apollo Theatre, welcoming Smokey Robinson onto the stage at a taping for an upcoming episode.

Costello also taped an episode at the Apollo, earlier in the day, with the Police (he has been opening concerts for them this summer). Other guests for the 13-part series, which begins airing Dec. 3 on the Sundance Channel, will include Elton John (one of the series' executive producers), Tony Bennett, Lou Reed, saxophone-playing ex-president Bill Clinton and Julian Schnabel, an artist and film director who has dabbled in music.

Robinson, of course, led the great '60s Motown group the Miracles, wrote countless hits for other artists (The Temptations' "My Girl," Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar"), and went solo with great success ("Cruisin'," "Being With You") in the '70s. It's easy to see the influence of his clever, deftly poetic songwriting (think of songs like "I Second That Emotion" and "Tears of a Clown") on Costello.

The interview featured the sort of long-form, leisurely interaction you rarely see on television. At one point, Robinson started telling a story involving Ray Charles and the Miracles' first appearance at the Apollo, nearly 50 years ago. Then he stopped himself.

"I don't know if you have the time to hear this story," he said.

"We have time!" Costello responded, emphatically, and Robinson talked about how that debut nearly took a disastrous turn, but Charles — his idol, whom he had never met before — bailed out the group by casually coming up with an arrangement for their song, "Bad Girl."

Throughout the taping, Costello discussed Robinson's music with the verve of an obsessive fan. He made the case, for instance, that Robinson's 1973 protest song "Just My Soul Responding" — a minor hit in England, a nonhit in the United States — should be considered the equal of two more celebrated Motown protest songs of that era, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and Stevie Wonder's "Living For the City."

Robinson was an open and cooperative subject, telling old stories about Gaye, Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder and Motown Christmas parties, but also praising younger singers like Chris Brown, John Legend and Justin Timberlake, and offering his thoughts on the state of the world. Costello let him expound, but also grounded the interview with nuts-and-bolts questions about musical influences (Jackie Wilson, Frankie Lymon) and songwriting technique.

He also cracked Robinson up by showing him the video for his 1980 single "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down." In the video, he and his band of the time, the Attractions, perform their own klutzy versions of synchronized Motown dance steps.

Costello opened the show by performing three Robinson songs — "No More Tearstained Make Up," "From Head to Toe," "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" — with his current backing group, the Imposters, augmented by an extra guitarist and two backing vocalists. He explained that the performances won't be seen in their entirety when the show airs, but excerpts could be used at points in the show when the songs are mentioned.

Later, Robinson, backed by the Imposters, mesmerized with a sweet, dreamy version of the Norah Jones hit "Don't Know Why," which he has recorded for an upcoming album. He also sang a stripped-down version of "The Tracks of My Tears" — just the first verse and the chorus, with backing by Imposters keyboardist Steve Nieve. Costello and Robinson, both sporting big grins, closed the show by dueting on "You've Really Got a Hold on Me."

There was one other musical interlude: Costello stopped talking at one point and sang some of Robinson's "First I Look at the Purse" a cappella, with the audience clapping along. Moments later, he recited lyrics from "No More Tearstained Make Up" as if they were poetry: "No sponge has the power to absorb the shower of tears pancake and powder couldn't cover."

"That, to me, is as good as anything Ira Gershwin ever wrote," Costello said.


The Star-Ledger, August 9, 2008

Jay Lustig previews Spectacle: Elvis Costello with....


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