Dec 142008

Hey, I finally got to watch the first two episodes of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…, the new Sundance channel talk show, in which Elvis plays James Lipton to a legendary guest musician. I know some of you have been following this nascent show.

The first episode, with Elton John, was fantastic. The two immediately got down to musician-on-musician rock nerd talk, with Elton talking about being a young rock snob in England who thought it was cooler to buy American releases of records while his American counterparts were seeking the UK releases. There was little to no typical rock mythologizing about drug abuse, sexual escapades, and a career’s worth of landmark hair architecture. This was a music talk show for the few of us who got into this for reasons other than “meeting chicks.”

Talk quickly turned to Leon Russell, a childhood favorite of mine thanks to my piano-playing uncle, who counted Russell among his favorite pianists and who to this day tells me about catching a nobody named Elton John in a tiny club on his first tour of the States. I can’t wait to tell my uncle about the Russell-John connections. As soon as Elton brought up his love for the piano style of Leon, I could hear the piano in “Benny and the Jets,” among other smash hits. I’m sure you had your own thoughts about this episode, but wasn’t “Sir Elton,” as he’s listed among the Executive Producers of this show, a gentleman and a scholar? Elvis covered an Elton tune and the two men played some songs together, with Pete Thomas, Allen Toussaint, James Burton, and Steve Nieve. The music was totally respectable. I loved the debut episode!

Elvis had to earn his paycheck on episode 2, featuring Rock Town Hall favorite Lou Reed. You know how cantakerous an interview Reed can be. After a strong start by Lou, Elvis had to use all his charm to keep Reed’s short attention span (with things other than his own genius) occupied. Along the way, Reed displayed his legendary self-importance, claiming that there’s a “secret” chord in “Sweet Jane” that us mere mortals have yet to unlock. Did you catch that part? As he pulled out his acoustic guitar, I said to my wife and stepfather, “Let’s see if it’s the Bm I’ve always played.” Sure enough, it was. For the first time in my life I could feel like a Guitar Visionary. Thanks, Lou!

To help keep the focus on Legendary Lou, Elvis had to call out a second special guest, artist/film maker Julian Schabel. In all fairness to Schnabel, I’ve never seen a lick of his work, but he came out in a tan camelhair sportcoat over deep purple velvet pyjamas, got off to a decent start by talking about how much he loved his longtime neighbor Lou, and even tied in the previous Elvis-Lou discussion of Lou’s Magic and Loss lp by telling a very personal story about the day Schnabel’s father died in his apartment and Lou came over to hold his dead father’s hand. Seeing the focus on himself slip away, Lou jumped – after asking his friend’s permission – to add that while he was holding Pere Schnabel’s still-warm hand, Julian went over to the stereo to spin Magic and Loss. Lou said something to the effect of, “Now it was getting too intense for me!” Julian’s father is dead on the floor and suddenly it’s all too much for Lou because his friend wanted to commemorate the moment by playing Lou’s death-obsessed album! As soon as some YouTube nerd posts this passage of the episode to the web, we’ll have another edition of Lou Reed…As His Music Was Meant to Sound! The Lou and Julian interview wrapped up with Schnabel, glass of hootch raised, reciting the entire set of lyrics to Lou’s “New York Minuet” with Lou sitting inches away, to his right. I would have loved to know what Elvis thought about his new venture at this moment.

The musical moments with Elvis and Lou were nowhere near as smooth as those in the Elton episode. Elvis and his musicians (Nieve and some other guys whose names were vaguely familiar) played Cajun version of “Femme Fatale” that worked all right solely because the song is so strong (eg, not even Nico could kill it). Lou and Elvis did a duet on “Perfect Day” that was really awkward, swinging from horrible to mildly impressive when Elvis got to sing a verse without Lou shadowing his every line. I’d never given some of the lyrics the credit they might deserve whenever I’ve played Lou’s version, but I’m not a big fan of that song in any form. Then they closed the show with a wretched version of “Set the Twilight Reeling.”

Episode 2 was nowhere near as great an episode as Elvis’ debut, but it was fascinating nevertheless.


  10 Responses to “Elvis Makes a Spectacle of Himself, Elton John, and Lou Reed”

  1. Saw the first one, but haven’t see the Lou one yet. Did see the teaser ads with Lou mentioning the missing chord. It’s Al Capone’s vault all over again if the missing chord is the Bm.

    The Elton episode was great. Elvis let Elton talk. He didn’t keep jumping in to ask a question that showed how perceptive he was, or ask a question that’s really a statement. In CNN land it’s rare that the guest speaks more than the host. Elvis was very PBS that way. Never pushing the interview to go faster or funnier. Excellent debut.

    The relaxed cover of Working in a Coal Mine was cool. Elton and Elvis seem like the same height, and have both plumped up to the point that when Elton came out to be greeted by Elvis, they looked like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

    Will he jam with Bill Clinton this week? The episode should be fascinating. Hope Clinton talks about playing sax to get sex.

  2. I really enjoyed both episodes of the show. I’m not too familiar with Reed, so it was fascinating to hear some tunes I didn’t KNOW, aside from “Femme Fatale”. I walked away with perhaps a better understanding of who Lou is. Julian kissed ass the whole time, up to the very end when he was going on and on about how great “Set The Twilight Reeling” was. I just thought that Elvis and Lou made for awkward duet partners. Elvis has a strong, towering voice over Lou’s almost spoken word delivery. I know Elvis usually adapts to his many and varied partners, but this was just too different for my tastes,

    Elvis is a great host as he does stay out of the guests way and only interjects when nescessary. His knowledge and respect for his subjects shows, thus making him a rock nerd’s dream to host a show of this nature.

    I can’t wait to see the upcoming Clinton episode as I know it won’t be political and give more insight to the President’s musical tastes.

    I think this show is the bee’s knees and is just GREAT. It’s just so…GREAT.


    PS–Don’t know if I mentioned this previously, but Elton’s “gay porn” exchange was priceless. Just a little too much information for us, Sir Elton…

  3. Jeez, I feel like Frank Cross (that’s Bill Murray’s Scrooged character, BTW): I thought the show was okay but kinda unnecessary. I only watched the Elton John episode, and I thought their conversation went in circles, mentioning one underappreciated cult artist after another. While I do appreciate that both Elvis and Elton have always been music fans, as well as rock stars, I didn’t see anything that convinced me this this show will last beyond a season or two. Don’t you think E.C. will get bored and distracted eventually?

    Most of the Later with Jools Holland I’ve seen has been in 5-minute YouTube samplings, but I’d surmise the reason that show’s lasted so long isn’t because Jools is an engaging TV personality (he’s actually pretty annoying), but because they get a pretty wide range of artists, from indie rockers to boomer icons to people whose music actually charts (in the UK anyway). What’s going to happen to Spectacle when Costello starts running out of friends to interview.

    That said, if he and Bruce Thomas stage a Martin and Lewis-like reunion (or maybe it’s more like Krusty and Sideshow Bob), then I take all this back.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    Oats, did we write anything to suggest that this will last more than maybe 8 episodes? I agree that the challenge will be stocking the show with artists outside Elvis’ circle that anyone cares about beside people like ourselves. To me, the upcoming Bill Clinton appearance looks like an early “jump the shark.” It will pull in viewers who are curious to see the Ex Prez, but do we really want to hear Bill speak about King Curtis and Kenny G? Then I heard that Diana Krall is scheduled for episode 4. Elvis could have booked Yoko first. Who’s next, Burt Bacharach or T Bone Burnett? If he can’t get beyond his circle of collaborators, the show will get real boring real soon. Maybe I shouldn’t expect the expected; his second guest was pretty much outside his world.

    What I liked was the attempt to have a straightforward music nerd discussion between musicians. Later with Jools Holland is a pretty cool show, but it’s nothing like this – it’s just an endless stream of live performances.

  5. Well, in all fairness, Elvis has said himself that this may just be a 13 episode run. I don’t think he himself really is interested in doing season after season. I think it was just an opportunity for him to do something cool.


  6. Re: Elvis and Bill. Whenever you have intelligent, well-spoken people you admire talk about a topic that interests them, it’s likely to be worth seeing. No way is it a jump the shark episode. Clinton likes real jazz.

    Famous moment when an MTV VJ asked him who his favorite musician was and he replied Thelonious Monk, the VJ responded,”Who’s The Loneliest Monk?”

  7. sammymaudlin

    I too loved the first episode for all the reasons mentioned. It was probably the first time in 20 years that I had respect for the current Elton.

    I really enjoyed episode two for very different reasons. It was a Lou that you seldom get to see as he had no, or at least very little, disdain for his interviewer. I didn’t come off liking him anymore but it was certainly interesting.

    And Elvis did a phenomenal job with him. Being a TV interviewer is not easy and takes a very particular set of skills. Anyone remember The Chevy Chase Show? I was at FOX at the time and they kept saying that Chevy had a higher “Q Score” (Fame/Popularity) than Leno and Letterman combined. Dude could not only not interview his way out of a paper bag but somehow turned the one bag into a double by the time he was done.

    The Perfect Day duet was awful. Hearing Lou’s never-great-but-now-shot voice combined with that of a real singer’s voice made him sound about as bad as I’ve ever heard him. Again though, this was fun to watch.

    I’m not a big fan of Schnabel’s gimmicky broken-plate path to fame but I am a fan of his film Basquiat. Regardless I found his comfort (possibly Scotch induced) with his own odd self a refreshing personae on broadcast.

  8. sammymaudlin

    I’m with chickenfrank on Clinton. I’m really looking forward to it. Two incredibly interesting, intelligent and charismatic men in a situation that is somewhat out of both of their comfort zones.

  9. BigSteve

    I hope this doesn’t spoil it for anyone, but I can confirm that the ‘missing chord’ in Sweet Jane is indeed a B minor.

    Is Schnabel really the big old drunk he appeared to be on the show? I thought it was funny that he couldn’t remember the first line of Rock Minuet, but once someone in the audience prompted him the whole thing poured out of him, to everyone’s horror, it seemed. And it was funny when he said to Elvis, “It was interesting to actually hear your speaking voice and find out that you’re … interested in other people.” In the New York art scene this is probably a rare quality. Elvis said something like “Well it took a while.”

    I agree that the duets were … I don’t know what they were. The musicians on the Lou Reed episode were Tony Garnier, who’s played bass with Dylan for ages, and Larry Campbell, who is no longer with Dylan but who played guitar/fiddle/mandolin/steel for a long time. I’m pretty sure that was Steve Nieve on non-rocking accordion.

    During the first broadcast I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be fun to tell your long-time piano-player, “Would you mind sitting out this show, because I want Allen Toussaint to take your place.” And then you have to bounce Allen over to organ when Elton plays the piano. What a tough job being a bandleader.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    That’s where I’d heard of Garnier and Campbell – yes! That was Nieve. Not a window was in sight during that performance.

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