Judge Edward Sung thought he was the King of America, but woke up to find he was just the Viscount of a bottle of Jameson.
Elvis Costello and over seven hours of interviews and music…
Elvis Costello's chat-and-music show, Spectacle, returns for a second season, with an amazing slate of guest musicians that includes Bono, The Edge, Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, and Bruce Springsteen.
Facts of the Case
Spectacle: Elvis Costello with… ran on the Sundance Channel for two seasons, from 2008 to 2010 (a third season is unlikely, but possible), and features the musical legend hanging out with fellow musical legends, chatting about their lives and the business of show. As tends to happen when you get a bunch of musicians together on a stage, music frequently breaks out, with Elvis and his guests performing each other's songs, and whatever else strikes their fancy.
The second season of Spectacle offers seven episodes on two discs, with a cornucopia of live performances:
Episode 202: Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, Ron Sexsmith & Jesse Winchester
Episode 203: Levon Helm, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson and Allen Toussaint
Episode 204: Elvis Costello with Mary-Louise Parker
Episode 206: Bruce Springsteen, Part 1
Episode 207: Bruce Springsteen, Part 2
Now cruising into his late 50s, punk's original Angry Young Man Elvis Costello can still bring the fury (see 2010's National Ransom), but these days his public face is more likely to show a chipper, crooked grin than the twitchy snarl of yesteryear.
I'm not sure exactly when Elvis turned from a guy who seemed to constantly be apologizing in the papers for some surly remark into an elder statesman of popular music—perhaps it was his collaboration with Paul McCartney on their Spike and Flowers in the Dirt albums that marked his unofficial knighthood as a member of rock royalty. But these days, when I think of Elvis Costello, I see a (mostly) mellow, devout student of musical styles, cruising through genres from Americana to jazz to classical with guileless fascination, like music's Martin Scorsese. Buddy Holly's evil universe doppelganger has morphed into the "Beloved Entertainer" from his Spike album.
As a talk show host and house band leader rolled into one, Elvis takes on the role of vaudeville ringmaster, playing the gracious, genial host to a parade of musical legends, veterans, and superstars from the worlds of rock, jazz, and country. Sometimes it's Elvis hanging out with acoustic guitar in hand as part of a congenial lineup of troubadours like Ron Sexsmith, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow and Jesse Winchester.
Sometimes, as with his chats with Bono and The Edge, or the epic two-parter with Bruce Springsteen, it's a little more of a formal interview format, interspersed with some blazing musical performances. Through it all, Elvis—looking surprisingly well turned out in his jaunty straw hat and dapper suits—looks to be having the time of his life.
Costello's guest lists aren't exactly drawn from today's Top 40 charts—Lady Gaga is nowhere to be found in this season—but most diehard music fans will find something to thrill to in this set of seven episodes, shot before live audiences at New York City's Apollo Theater and Ontario's Masonic Temple. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most compelling conversations aren't with the big names like Bono and Springsteen, but with less-familiar guests like Jesse Winchester and Allen Toussaint who are there because Elvis is a gushing fan of their work. His enthusiasm for these fellow musicians is sometimes movingly evident, and he's adept at communicating their appeal to him to his audience.
What's most unexpected to me, as someone who missed Spectacle's first season, is how much actual music there is on the show. I'd expected more of a conventional chat show format—Elvis and guest conversing airily in a well-lit studio while seated on comfy sofas—so I was surprised to find everyone mostly sitting on stools behind microphones, guitars in hand, ready to rip into a song at the slightest provocation. While the conversations are often illuminating, as when John Prine talks about storytelling in his writing, or Nick Lowe recalls his terror at playing a song he'd written for Johnny Cash—his father-in-law—for Johnny Cash himself, the real thrill is watching these artists play together, oftentimes in unlikely, revelatory, combinations.
I can say honestly that I'd pretty much never even thought to imagine Elvis Costello and Lyle Lovett sharing a stage together, but now that I've seen them, along with John Prine and Ray LaMontagne, laying into Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta," I wish these kinds of diverse musical matchups were more routine. And as an Elvis Costello fan, it's a treat to hear his songs being performed by the likes of Ron Sexsmith (who gracefully and beautifully takes ownership of "Everyday I Write The Book"), Springsteen and Bono.
Visually, Spectacle lives up to its title, presenting lush, vivid colors with an appealing richness and clarity. Not all of these guys are necessarily guys you want to see in razor-sharp focus (I personally think Elvis is growing rather gracefully into his looks, but some may differ), but the DVD perfectly captures the gorgeous sets and lighting. And while I'd have been happier with full surround audio, the Dolby digital stereo track provided (English only) is perfectly adequate, bringing the music across with a clean, full sound.
As for extras, it's more about quality than quantity, with a behind-the-scenes documentary offering some background on the genesis of the series, and three musical gems—performances of U2's "Dirty Day" by Elvis and The Imposters, a terrific low-key "Alison" with Elvis, Bono and The Edge, and Elvis and band cutting loose with a blistering rendition of his dark Blood and Chocolate classic "I Want You."
At the moment, it's not looking too good for a third season of Spectacle, which is a shame. The idea of a virtual encyclopedia of music, featuring a brilliantly eclectic mix of artists, and hosted by a singular rock legend, is something that needs to exist.
Elvis Costello may Stand Accused, but the court finds Spectacle not
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