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Elvis Costello’s ‘Spectacle’ a rare treat

July 21, 2011
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

This week I review the DVD releases of Elvis Costello's wonderful talk and performance show on the Sundance cable network, "Spectacle."

It's hard to believe the borderline arrogant, combative and angry young man I listened to as a teenager more than 30 years ago has grown into one of the best - and humble - talk show hosts ever.

Elvis Costello's first three classic albums - "My Aim is True," "This Year's Model" and "Armed Forces" - were the equivalent of verbal arsenic tempered with melodic lace, a series of records so powerful, so influential and so distinctive that if El had never done anything half as good again he would have been remembered as a genius of song and craft.

Clever, biting, sardonic and fierce, those three records built Costello's reputation as a young man not to be trifled with. However, the venom also exposed Costello's bitter side and resulted in his infamous meltdown that took years for him to rebound from, a sordid and disgraceful story I won't recount here (use the Internet if you really need to know.)

Two-thirds of Costello's brilliant band the Attractions from those records are still with him, although they've been redubbed the Imposters. Drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, both absolutely brilliant and in-demand studio musicians, have now been playing with Costello for more than 30 years, and the three compose the sonic backbone of what I consider the most intelligent series ever on popular music. It's not enough to say they read each other's minds - they breathe together.

There have been only two seasons of "Spectacle," and it looks like that may be the end of the line, as Costello had said he's not interested in doing more.

The hour-long show's first season featured a wide range of guests, including Sir Elton John - also the show's producer - former President Bill Clinton, Tony Bennett, Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel, the Police, Smokey Robinson, Rufus Wainwright, Jakob Dylan, Jenny Lewis and She & Him, Costello's wife and jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock, Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, Norah Jones, John Mellencamp and James Taylor.

The premise of the show includes Costello usually playing a song by one of the featured artists and an introduction that can only be described as "carnivalesque." Every show has some type of theme, whether it be "building a band" or just musicians that have something in common.

Costello then sits on a stool and talks with the guests about pretty much just one subject - music. A man who clearly does his homework on each guest, Costello asks non-obvious, excellent questions, is quick on followup and seems entirely at ease, deferential and gracious with his guests.

The respect and almost palatable awe Costello seems to have for many of his guests never becomes pandering, as he possesses just the right amount of humor to break up an edgy or self-important moment before it wanders into sentimentality.

The other wonderful aspect are the performances, as seemingly odd pairings of musicians, the show's forte, are one of the its most enjoyable quirks. Who would ever think to pair Krall with Herbie Hancock and Elton John, or even interview Clinton not about foreign policy or politics but strictly about his extensive love and knowledge of American music?

The second season is even better than the first, as Elvis hits his stride as host. He also puts together one of the quirkiest but successful bands ever during his "build a band" segment - English guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson; English pub songwriter and producer Nick Lowe on bass; the New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint on piano; and the fabulous Levon Helm, drummer for the Band. The band does "The Weight," one of the Band's most recognizable songs, with all trading vocals except for the man who sang on the original - Helm, who was suffering from complications of the throat cancer he beat several years ago.

The two-show series with Bruce Springsteen is a music lover's dream, with the two sharing tales and the stage with an amazing amount of empathy.

It's the show's little moments that stick with you - Helm being interviewed by Costello by using his drums to "talk," or modern folkie Neko Case shedding a tear as fellow guest folkster Jesse Winchester sings one of his wonderful ballads.

Other guests on season two include John Prine, actress Mary-Louise Parker, Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett and Bono and the Edge from U2.

If you are a true lover of diverse music, then "Spectacle" is really going to be a treat. Joyful, astounding and effortlessly entertaining, the show is a worthy item on Costello's fascinating and seemingly endless resume. Intelligent, inspirational and insightful, "Spectacle" is something nearly miraculous to witness.

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