NEW YORK -- During an interview with Elton John for the debut of his new television show Spectacle, Elvis Costello doesn't ask about stage costumes, boyfriends or "Island Girl." Instead, the conversation turns to Laura Nyro, Leon Russell and David Ackles.
The two men closed the show performing the obscure British songwriter Ackles' song "Down River."
"For all of his successes, people don't realize that he's a great fan of music," Costello said of John. "They assume that he's this flamboyant guy who has hit records. They don't know that it's grounded in a great love and tremendous knowledge about music."
Costello could as easily have been talking about himself. That background, his experience on the other side of interviews and a natural rapport with people in similar jobs more than make up for any deficits as a trained TV prober.
They give Spectacle, a mix of music and talk, heft along with entertainment value. Although conceived in Canada and airing at some point on CTV, Spectacle debuted last night on the American Sundance Channel. (Costello is married to Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall and they have a home on Vancouver Island.)
Besides John, who is an executive producer of the 13-episode series, future guests include Lou Reed, James Taylor, The Police, Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Herbie Hancock, Renee Fleming and Krall (interviewed by John).
As the first episode's interview reveals, Costello's goal is to get his guests talking about their enthusiasms, in hopes they'll reveal more of themselves in the process.
During his session with a clearly nervous Taylor, Costello mentions hearing a Gene Autry record recently that reminded him of Paul McCartney, and Taylor begins talking about his days at Apple Records.
Reed picks up a guitar to show the proper way of playing "Sweet Jane."
"It was funny because he wouldn't seem to be a guy who would do an instruction thing," Costello says. "He was in good humour throughout the show, contrary to a lot of people's expectations about him. Maybe they approach him through a lens of darkness, solely concentrating on the image that is projected through a very limited slice of his repertoire."
The Police show has an end-of-tour frankness and frivolity. It also illustrates another highlight of Spectacle - the music - as the band and Costello play a version of "Watching the Detectives" that morphs into "Walking on the Moon."
An amateur saxophone player who served two terms in the White House is on Dec. 17's show.
Former president Bill Clinton talks about music, not politics, saying how he gave up the dream of being a professional musician when he looked in the mirror and realized he'd never be good enough to be the best.