Saturday, August 13, 2011

Not to be missed: Spectacle with Elvis Costello

The first season of Spectacle features 13 amazing interviews and performances.  Elvis Costello is cast perfectly as host.
If you love music raise your hand. Yep, just as I thought, everybody.  Oop, Mr. Gingrich, you'll have to leave, and Dad you'll need to go with him.

If you are a music lover you must watch Spectacle with Elvis Costello.  Produced by British and Canadian television, Spectacle premiered during the 2008/09 season with 13 episodes and followed the 2009/10 season with seven shows.

 Spectacle's first season is available on Netflix streaming.  I'd heard about it from friends a couple of times, and seen a brief allusion to host Elvis Costello's transition from musician to talk show host in a review.  I was intrigued.  After the first episode, I was hooked.

Each episode begins with Elvis performing, usually something out of the musical guest's songbook.  Look, you either like Elvis Costello's singing or you don't.  I do, but I'm a longtime fan. He's an acquired taste.
Elvis with the members of the Police.  From left to right: Elvis Costello, Sting, guitarist Andy Summers, and drummer Stewart Copeland.  Perhaps the best of all the episodes.
What follows is a mesmerizing conversation between the artists, Costello and his guest.  Taking place in a performance hall, sometimes the Apollo Theater in New York, on a well equipped, but comfortably appointed stage, Costello leads a fascinating discussion of the guest's musical influences, experiences, and style.  This is not the Tonight Show, Letterman or Conan O'Brien.  The multi-faceted Costello is comfortable talking with Elton John about his long career, with She and Him about song-writing, or Bill Clinton's musical experiences without seeming star-struck, or worshipful.  The discussions are in the nature of two musicians talking shop, whether it is Elvis and James Taylor talking about the latter's North Carolina roots on his songwriting, or a discussion with ebullient Police drummer Stewart Copeland about the difficulty of working as a team, or  Renee Fleming's explanation of how she changes her singing style from her work for the Metropolitan Opera to her popular music projects.
Sir Elton John sits in for Elvis Costello to interview his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall. The British Columbia native explained her influences and gave a superb performance.
Punctuated with lots of music, guests performing alone and with Costello, it is 49 minutes (per episode) well spent.

The thriteen episode are as follows:
1.  With Sir Elton John.  Lots of great discussion about John's career.  To be truthful, he is the show's executive producer, but given his long, success as a songwriter, performer, his struggle to come out as a gay man to an unforgiving public.  It was great conversation with solid musical performances.

 2.  Episode 2 with Lou Reed.  Again memorable conversation about Reed's roots, the Velvet Underground, and his unique style.  Filmmaker Julian Schnabel joined Costello and Reed to discuss Reed's music and life.

 3.  Episode 3 with Bill Clinton.  The only non-performer on the guest list, Clinton, as might be expected, was still fascinating.  The conversation mostly focused on the role music played in the ex-president's life, and how he chose politics over music.  Interesting show, very little political discussion even though it happens during the 2008 campaign season.

 Episode 4 with Tony Bennett was quiet good.  The crooner has aged well and could still get his formidable voice around a few of his best known songs, including "The Way Your Look Tonight," one of my favorites. Lots of interesting conversation about Bennett's second passion, painting.

 Episode 5 with the Police was one of my absolute favorites.  It didn't hurt that Elvis had just come off tour with them, so knew them well.  Costello interviewed each of the band members individually, which was hilarious. Drummer Stewart Copeland comes across as the real rebel, with guitarist Andy Summers as the professional guitarist, while Sting is the erudite, long-suffering band leader.  The musical performances were superb including interesting performances between Elvis and Sting. The show closes with a rollicking interview with the three together and a fun performance with Costello, performing "Watching the Detectives," "Walking on the Moon," and, of all things, Cream's "Sunshine of My Love."   If you have to choose one episode to watch, this might be it.

Episode 6 with Smokey Robinson was also excellent.  Filmed at the Apollo Theater, we learn a lot about Smokey and the Miracles and how they signed with Motown.  Robinson shares his experience as a musician as well as a songwriter for the Detroit label.  Riveting stuff.

 Episode 7 with Rufus Wainwright was nothing I expected.  I had heard of him, and knew him to be the son of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, but I'd never heard his solo stuff.  Figuring him to be a folkie, like his parents, I was surprised to learn he was not like any popular musician I'd ever heard.  Influenced by the Great American Songbook, I admired his distinctive, beautiful voice.  The conversation was also incredible and I grew to admire his experience and struggle as an out gay performer.  The episode ends with a performance with Costello and Wainwright's mother.

 Episode 8 with Jenny Lewis, She and Him and Jakob Dylan focused mainly on the art of songwriting.  Though I knew Dylan from his work with the Wallflowers, I didn't know the other artists at all.  The discussion, as always, was interesting, and I found the music interesting too.

 Episode 9 was among the more unique episodes as the guest was Costello's wife, jazz pianist/vocalist Diana Krall.  I'd hear snippets of her work before, but not much.  Her performance was lovely and I've gone right out to the library to grab up as many discs as possible to download.  To give a unique twist to the show, executive producer Elton John conducts the interview rather than Elvis.  Sir Elton fills in admirably.

Episode 10 jazz pianist Herbie Hancock focused on his emergence with the Mile Davis group in the early 60's, as well as his style and technique.  For those, like me, who know little about jazz it was insightful, informative and the music was wonderful.

 Episode 11 with Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash and John Mellencamp was one of my favorites.  Promoted as an old fashioned "guitar pull" from Nashville, I was most intrigued with Rosanne Cash.  I thought it most interesting that Kristofferson, Mellencamp and Cash all performed solo, Jones was relegated to the role of uninterviewed back-up singer.  Come Away With Me indeed.

 Episode 12 with James Taylor again focused on songwriting, and as one of the iconic figures singer/songwriter era Taylor had a lot to talks about.  Some great songs as well, closing with one of my favorites "Sweet Baby James."

 Episode 13 was a fascinating interview with opera soprano Renee Fleming.  While Fleming did perform an aria from Tosca, she also focused on her forays into popular music and was quite well.  The special treat was Rufus Wainwright's return to the Costello's stage also belting out a song from his own opera about to premiere in England.

I know that if you've gotten this far you've read a lot.  I'd really like to emphasize the important role of Costello the interviewer. He seems richly suited for this role and he performs it very well.

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