Toronto Globe and Mail, December 11, 2009

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Television

Elvis Costello still avoiding the pigeonhole


Andrew Ryan

Even after three decades in the music business, Elvis Costello still refuses to commit.

Since the release of his angry-young-man breakout album My Aim Is True in 1977, Costello has glided freely through forays in rock, country, blues, soul and even jazz - in consort with his wife, Canadian jazz chanteuse Diana Krall - while always avoiding categorization into one musical style.

Similarly, the versatile recording artist derived tremendous enjoyment from his first season on the unique interview/performance series Spectacle: Elvis Costello with … (CTV, 10 p.m.). Just don't call him a TV host.

"I still don't think of myself as a television presenter," says Costello on the line from New York. "This is a detour for me. My real job is still making songs and performing. I think the reason people responded to the first season is because I do have the same vocation."

Tonight's episode of Spectacle is a sneak peek at the second season, slated to return in 2010 on CTV. And the first show is a corker: Costello interviews and performs with two of the most famous pop stars on the planet: Bono and the Edge, who arrived to the taping at Toronto's Masonic Temple directly from one of U2's sold-out shows at the Rogers Centre last September.

Would the pair have shown up for a TV taping had the show been hosted by anyone other than Costello? For those at the top of the music food-chain, membership has its privileges. "I do know them," he says. "We've been on the same bill together on a few occasions in the past. At the beginning of their career they were coming up and would be on the same festival bill we were headlining."

That program sets the bar high for the rest of the season. Singer Bono and guitarist the Edge reveal the process behind the recording of their most famous songs, and touch on some quirky side topics, such as their unlikely friendship with the late Frank Sinatra.

"It's a good combination of revelation and humour," observes Costello. "What made it particularly interesting was they talked about the contemporaries they came up with - bands like Echo & the Bunnymen. It wasn't just about their current career, it was about where they came from."

In the show's performance portion, the Irish rockers join forces with Elvis and the Imposters for recharged versions of the U2 hits Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out of , Stay (Faraway, So Close!) and Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad (written by Bono for Sinatra as an 80th-birthday present).

The episode highlight is the musical merger of U2's Get on Your Boots and Costello's seminal 1978 song Pump It Up. "We remarked on their similarity, so we had some sport combining the two songs," he says.

One of last year's more original TV concepts, Spectacle showed viewers another side of a wide range of performers in its first season, including Elton John, Lou Reed, Tony Bennett and ex-president Bill Clinton (no, he didn't play the sax).

Lauded by critics and fans alike - the program recently made Time magazine's year-end list of best TV shows - Costello has also received viewer feedback from unlikely sources. "I've been in supermarkets in Vancouver, and have had conversations with people about season one," he says. "Usually it's the person you least expect on appearance who will suddenly say, 'I loved that Lou Reed episode.' Many became engaged by the nature of the conversation."

The conversations continue in the sophomore season, which will have seven episodes (down from 13 last season). Even then, the co-ordination of artists and the host's availability was not a simple affair.

"This time we did five of the episodes in four days," says Costello proudly. Two of the new-season episodes were filmed in Toronto, and Costello will again sit down/jam with a diverse group of musicians including Sheryl Crow, Nick Lowe, Levon Helm, Richard Thomson and Canadian Ron Sexsmith. In each instance, the host does his homework. "I feel it's best to be prepared," he says simply. "You have to be aware of everybody's career. You have to go back and listen to their music again, so you have a fresh memory of each song."

Along with the chaps from U2, the second season's other notable artist coup was time with Bruce Springsteen. Or make that overtime. As with the Boss's stage show, the taping was a longer-than-average affair.

"Springsteen and I were onstage for three and a quarter hours," says Costello, "but he also played a lot of songs that weren't originally scheduled. He wanted to illustrate things that he had talked about musically. Then he went on to play the numbers we rehearsed."

So far, Costello's tenure as a TV host has worked out nicely for him, though he's wise enough not to commit to a third season of Spectacle at this point. "You want to be careful you're not being too greedy for these experiences," he says slyly.

Costello says his pivotal vocation, and likewise for the missus, is being a parent. Krall was on tour in Europe while Costello taped those five Spectacle shows in four days, yet he did them while staying home in New York so that he could care for their four-year-old twin boys, Dexter and Frank. "Obviously, I had people to help me look after them," he says, "but it's still a full-time job. When they wake up in the middle of the night, guess who's there. I wouldn't have it any other way."

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The Globe and Mail, December 11, 2009


Andrew Ryan reviews Season One of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with ... and previews Season Two.


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