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He Sings, He Talks, He Asks Questions: The Spectacle That Is Elvis Costello

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The Sundance Channel (check local listings) has given Elvis Costello the perfect platform to display his considerable acquaintance with Euterpe, the Greek muse for all things musical. Costello’s knowledge of music is encyclopedic, and he wants you to know it, and that’s not a criticism. He always has. Perhaps no other performer, excluding Willie Nelson, has publicly embraced — and performed with — such a diversity of musical styles and performers.

I mean, Costello knows from music. He comes from a musical family — his father was a big band singer in England — and no doubt that contributed at an early age to his open-armed, big-hearted view of jazz, big band, swing, rock, punk, soul, and the list goes on and on.

Who else, then, to host Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…? No one, of course. And great credit to the Sundance Channel for offering it up. I can think of few other channels that would take the chance. Where else could you see Costello, or anyone, interview Elton John (who is an executive producer of the show) and James Taylor and Tony Bennett and Lou Reed?

Turns out, as much as you might think Costello has cornered the market on ecumenical musical tastes, others are equally as well versed and as thoroughly converted. And while that may not be a revelation to music aficionados (and of course, critics), it was surprising to this reviewer that Elton John can go toe to toe with Costello and the range of his knowledge and anecdotes. Elton John knows from music, too. What was also surprising in the Elton John “chat” was how important Leon Russell was to John’s early work and initial popularity. As John says, Russell was extremely generous to this upstart, clueless performer and gave him the confidence to continue his work, even as John’s popularity began to far eclipse Russell’s.

Turns out, also, that John does a dead on impersonation not only of Russell’s playing style (which is how Elton developed his) but can sing in a “voice” that, were you listening to rather than watching the show, you’d swear was Russell performing. And who knew (although I suspect we should not be surprised) that Elton can riff in great detail and with much passion on Billy Stewart and Laura Nyro and other sadly neglected, but highly neglected, performers of some time ago?

Other episodes are equally as revelatory. One instance during Costello’s chat with Tony Bennett does, though, point to one of the show’s periodic annoyances: that would be Costello’s sometimes too-overwrought and convoluted interview technique, denoted by his (usually) gentle but conspicuous display of the “academic” in his questioning (this is music after all). Thus, when he begins to ask Bennett about the idea of music and its translation to an audience and what happens in between, Bennett stops him — saying, in essence, that question’s too intellectual for me; let’s just talk about the music. (Of particular note in that episode, Bennett asks Costello’s wife, Diana Krall, who apparently sits rapt at each taping, to come on stage and sing a song with him. It’s a magical moment, and Costello is graceful enough to stand in the wings and simply listen.)

Each show opens with Costello doing a solo routine that has some tie-in to the guest, and often there is a duet between host and guest. This can make for truly magical entertainment. Bill Clinton was a guest on an early episode (sadly, no duet here), and if you think the former President may be an odd choice, think again. As he has proven all these years, there’s very little (is there anything?) Bill Clinton does not know something about — in this case Arkansas musicians. He is also extremely knowledgeable about jazz, his music of preference.

Shows like Spectacle rejuvenate and enhance television. Even if you’re not a music wonk, so to speak, you’ll find Spectacle to be illuminating and often riveting. And, depending on the bill, you may also be witness to some small history being made.

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