Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 9, 2012)
When rock musicians show up on TV, it tends to be for brief talk show segments. They get to play a song or two, and if they’re famous enough, they might chat with the host for five minutes or so. Not exactly a whole lot of room for depth and insight, is there?
The grand world of cable TV opens up possibilities, and a Sundance Channel series called Spectacle delivers a decidedly unusual focus. Rather than have general chat show hosts or rock critics delve into the music, Spectacle features rock legend Elvis Costello as host and leader of the house band.
This means that we truly get to hear musicians discuss music, as Costello interviews the participants. Each show also features performances, many of which include Elvis as an aspect of the band.
Here we’ll look at the seven episodes from the series’ second season. The program synopses come from the Blu-ray’s packaging.
Bono and the Edge (aired 12/9/09): “The opening episode finds host Elvis Costello conducting an intimate and revealing conversation with fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Bono and the Edge of U2. Recorded at the Masonic Temple in Toronto, Canada, in the midst of the band’s 360 World Tour, Bono and the Edge pull the curtain back on the writing and recording process behind some of their most famous songs, their unlikely friendship with Frank Sinatra and perform rarities as well as a show-ending mash-up with Elvis and the Imposters”. The show includes performances of “Mysterious Ways” (Elvis and the Imposters”, “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, “Pump It Up” and “Get On Your Boots” (Elvis, Imposters, Bono, Edge), “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” (Bono, Edge, Steve Nieve) and “Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad” (Bono, Imposters).
U2 are a top-five act for me, so it’s a delight to see Bono and Edge sit with personal top 10 Elvis. Both have a moderately shared past; they crossed paths more than a few times over the years, though it’s funny because Elvis always seemed like an “elder statesman” with his whopping three-year head start in the recording studio. Elvis digs into a mix of aspects of U2’s career well and asks a nice array of questions as we get good semi-obscure stories from U2’s 30-year career. Some of the material’s suspect – Bono claims the band formed in 1979, and states that he met his wife the same month the group came together even though they started to date the prior year – but both Bono and Edge are charming and interesting.
Musically, the show’s more hit or miss. The promised rarities really just means “Two Shots”; none of the others can be called rare U2 tracks. Elvis’ voice doesn’t fit U2 songs well, unfortunately; he just bludgeons his way through the tunes and doesn’t mesh with Bono. The “Pump It Up”/”Boots” mash is fun, though, and the other songs without Elvis work well.
Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Winchester (aired 12/16/09): “Elvis is joined by guests Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Winchester for an old-fashioned guitar pull; a swapping of songs and stories amongst this amazing group of singer/songwriters.” Performances cover “Payday” (Costello, Crowe, Case, Sexsmith, Winchester, Nieve), “If It Makes You Happy” (Costello, Crowe, Case, Sexsmith, Winchester), “Don’t Forget Me” (Case, Nieve), “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” (Winchester), “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” (Crow, Winchester), “Everyday I Write the Book” (Costello, Sexsmith), “Leaving Las Vegas” (Costello, Crow, Case, Sexsmith, Nieve), “Prison Girls” (Costello, Crow, Case, Nieve), and “Ring Them Bells” (Costello, Crow, Sexsmith, Nieve).
For me, Spectacle took an inevitable dip after the first episode. I went from one of my all-time faves – I’ve seen more than 60 U2 shows – to a bunch of people who do very little for me. I don’t dislike any of the included artists, but I own nothing by any of them and have never paid to see them play. (I saw both Crow and Sexsmith as opening acts back in the 90s, though.)
While I definitely don’t like any of the involved guests 1/100th as much as I love U2, this still becomes a pretty satisfying program. It actually feels a bit more coherent than the prior show, largely because the artists fit together better. As I mentioned, Costello and U2 didn’t connect well, whereas this episode’s acoustic tone goes nicely. Elvis tones down his vocals and avoids the shouting that went so poorly with U2’s songs, and all of the performers come together in a nice manner.
Don’t expect a lot of chitchat, though, as the interview side of this episode is much less substantial. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the larger cast; since the number of participants means that Elvis can’t get into their careers in depth, the decision may’ve been made to largely skip that side of things. That’s a bit of a disappointment, as I like the “musicians talking music” side of things, but musically, this one succeeds.
Levon Helm, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson and Allen Toussaint (aired 12/23/09): “Elvis literally builds a band in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. Joining him for this once in a lifetime jam session are his former record producer Nick Lowe on bass, legendary New Orleans producer/pianist Allen Toussaint, UK guitar giant Richard Thompson and drummer Levon Helm from the Band.” We get renditions of “Rag Mama Rag” (Elvis and Imposters), “Shoot Out the Lights” (Costello, Imposters, Thompson), “The Beast in Me” (Lowe), “Holy Cow” (Toussaint), “Tennessee Jed” and “A Certain Girl” (Costello, Imposters, Helm, Toussaint, Lowe), and “The Weight” (Costello, Imposters, Lowe, Helm, Thompson, Toussaint and Ray LaMontagne).
This one offers a decent balance of talk and music. It’s not as informative as the Bono/Edge episode, but it gives us more material than the one with Crow and company. It’s also more fun musically. While I thought the last show was coherent and likable in that regard, I’m not super-wild about the acoustic setting, whereas this one goes for a more rock-oriented feel.
In a broad way, at least; songs like “Holy Cow” don’t exactly rock. But the tunes use the full band and are peppier than those from the semi-mopey singer-songwriter show. The performances here sound quite good, and the episode might even sell some albums; Thompson’s performance is pushing toward picking up some of his work.
By the way, when Costello partnered with Toussaint for an album and tour in 2006, I didn’t look forward to it. I thought this would be an indulgence but it turned out to be a terrific partnership. The River in Reverse was Costello’s most interesting album in a while, and the show was quite satisfying. It’s nice to see Toussaint again here, as he’s a gentleman and a talent.
Elvis Costello with Mary-Louise Parker (aired 1/6/10): “Elvis slides over to the guest chair as actress/music journalist Mary-Louise Parker guest hosts. Elvis performs songs from throughout his career and discusses songwriting and collaborating with the likes of Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and T Bone Burnett.” We find takes on “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”, “Motel Matches”, “Shabby Doll” and “So Like Candy” (Costello and Imposters), “I Still Have That Other Girl” (Costello, Nieve), “I Threw It All Away”, “Town Cryer” and “Brilliant Mistake” (Costello).
On the surface, this sounds like a great episode, but in reality, it’s a bit of a disappointment. Much of the problem comes from Parker’s inability to act like anything other than a star-struck superfan. Costello mentions her rock critic bona fides at the start, but you’ll not get a lot of that sense from the discussion; Parker tends to stick with “that was awesome!” style remarks and her questions don’t tend to lead the conversation down a particularly revealing path.
At least the show’s stronger musically, mostly because Elvis pulls out some definite rarities here. Of all the performed songs, “Chelsea” is the only one that makes Costello’s live sets with regularity. It’s a bit of a disappointment that he does short renditions of some tracks, but it’s still cool to hear them. That side of things helps redeem the episode.
Lyle Lovett, Ray Montagne and John Prine (aired 1/13/10): “Elvis explores the role of the singer/songwriter with three of the best: the legendary and highly influential John Prince, four-time Grammy winner Lyle Lovett and the critically acclaimed Ray LaMontagne. Each stands alone in the spotlight to perform and sits for an intimate chat with Elvis on their craft.” This one provides renditions of “I’m Ahead If I Can Quit While I’m Behind” (Costello), “Lake Marie” (Prine), “Natural Forces” (Lovett), “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame)” (Costello, LaMontagne, Jay Bellerose) and “Loretta” (Costello, Prine, Lovett, LaMontagne).
This is one of the episodes during which the interviews become the strongest element. I think all the musicians have ample talent, but I just can’t say their work does anything for me; I didn’t dislike their songs, but they didn’t stand out as anything I’d want to hear again.
The interviews are quite enjoyable, though. Prine, Lovett, and LaMontagne are all interesting and well-spoken, so they discuss their art well. Prine is the biggest charmer of the bunch and he adds the best parts of the program.
Bruce Springsteen Parts 1 and 2 (aired 1/13/10 and 1/20/10): “Elvis sits down with Bruce Springsteen in this special two-part episode. With his guitar in hand, The Boss opens up about his pre-Estreet Band bands, his early and current inspirations, and the resurgence of New Jersey. E Street Band members Nils Lofgren and Roy Bittan sit in for a couple of songs.” We hear “She’s the One” (Costello, Springsteen, Lofgren, Imposters), “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” (Springsteen, Lofgren, Bittan), “American Skin (41 Shots)” (Springsteen), “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” (Costello, Springsteen, Imposters), “Radio Silence/Radio Nowhere/Radio Radio”, “Seeds”, and “The Rising” (Costello, Springsteen, Lofgren, Bittan, Imposters), “Oh, Pretty Woman” (Costello, Springsteen), “Black Ladder” (Costello, Springsteen, Lofgren), and “Galveston Bay” (Springsteen, Bittan).
Earlier I noted that U2 are top five for me; Bruce is top three, maybe even top two. I’m at 103 concerts to date, so obviously I’m more than a little interested in the man’s work.
Logically, these two episodes become the package’s most intriguing for me. While I can’t say the programs live up to my high expectations, it’s still a good one. Bruce and Elvis show a good connection as they chat about music and life; this is probably the best chemistry between Costello and subjects since we saw him with Bono and Edge.
The music works better here, though, as Costello fits Bruce’s style more appropriately than it does U2’s. As a longtime Springsteen fan, it’s a treat to hear him expound on his life and music for so much time, and the musical segments are a lot of fun.