Television: Elvis Costello’s Spectacle on Sundance Channel

by Rick Grant
TV Commentary
Multiple Grammy winning singer/songwriter Elvis Costello launched a new talk/music show on The Sundance Channel Dec. 3rd. This unique TV concept is well worth viewing for serious music devotees. Costello is an icon of eclectic folk, rock, and pop music, having been in the forefront of original music for 30 years with his bands The Attractions and The Imposters. He has also toured with pianist Steve Nieve.
More significantly, Costello has collaborated with Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet, Paul McCartney, guitarist Bill Frisell, composer Roy Nathason, The Charles Mingus Orchestra, producers T. Bone Burnett and Allen Toussaint. Many of his collaborations have resulted in Grammy nominations and other awards.
Long ago, Costello proved worthy of having the King’s first name, surpassing Presley in artistry, while respecting his gigantic accomplishments. Costello’s songs have been recorded by innumerable major artists such as George Jones, Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, Solomon Burke, and many others.
In Costello’s new show, he sits down with other music icons like Sir Elton John, James Taylor, Lou Reed, Bill Clinton, and The Police to chat and catch up on what they have been doing. Then they perform, with Costello sitting-in. It’s an unusual opportunity to see these stars relaxed and talking to Costello like they had visited his home and decided to jam. It’s an insider’s look at world class musicians and songwriters talking about music and other subjects. .
Prior to the first episode of the 13-episode run on Sundance’s website, Costello said that “his goal was to get his guests talking about their enthusiasms, hoping they’d reveal more of themselves in the process.” Costello’s only other television experience was subbing for David Letterman, which he found difficult. It made him develop a new respect for Letterman’s nightly job of being funny and entertaining.
Costello told David Bauder of the Associated Press that he didn’t know if there would be a second season because of the difficulties of juggling his family and guests schedules, while tending to his regular job as a touring musician. But he concluded that despite the scheduling problems and other frustrations, the great moments outweighed the details of putting on the show.
The debut episode draws the viewer into Costello’s world with his musical friends and colleagues. In video clips on viewers can see Costello playing Elton John’s “Border Song” with his band in front of an audience. Another sequence shows Bill Clinton reminiscing about his teens when he could hear Dixieland and other forms of music played in the clubs. He had his mother take him to Al Hirt’s club to hear him play. The door man said he was too young to go into the cub. Bill said “Look, I don’t want anything to drink, I just want to see and hear the music played live.” The guy must have had a revelation and seen little Billy as president in the future-Clinton got into the club.
In Costello’s interview with Elton John, he tells a story about when he went to pick up Martha and the Vandells in his Aston Martin, which had just a small jump seat in the back “All four crammed into my little sports car, and they had to borrow money to get their clothes out of the cleaners. That hit me hard. By that time I had made it as ‘Elton John,’with hit records, and they were my idols. They were getting ripped off and it changed the way I looked at the music business,” Elton said.
One of the best performances on the show was Elvis Costello and Elton John together singing “Times Change” with Elton on piano and Costello’s band backing them. Lou Reed’s segment was interesting when he revealed his was dyslectic but he got a job as a copy editor because he had a degree in English. When he turned to music, he had failed at everything else. Reed was surprisingly upbeat for someone who is known for his dark moods and cynicism about humanity.
For musicians and music aficionados, this show is like taking an advanced class in musicology. It’s a rare chance to see some influential musicians share antidotes and play with Elvis Costello’s smoking band. It’s like they came into your house to share some quality time. “Spectacle” runs Wednesday nights on the Sundance Channel. On Comcast 165 check listings for times which vary.