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Wednesday, Feb 18, 2009

It’s about time that Elvis Costello’s wife, pianist and singer Diana Krall, appeared on Spectacle (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel)—after all, the cameras cut to her in the audience on most episodes, just another face in the crowd, a face that just so happens to be wed to the series’ host. So for this penultimate episode of the series, the spotlight’s hers. She appears alongside bassist Christian McBride and drummer Karriem Riggins, who back her up on a few terrific performances, including Nat King Cole’s “Exactly Like You” and the instrumental standard “Night Train”.


In order to provide some critical distance, the show’s executive producer, Elton John, appears as guest host—though very quickly he divulges that the two have been friends for nearly ten years, so I suppose “critical distance” may not be the apt term here. John has never interviewed anyone on television before, he points out at the start, and it’s obvious; still, he shares a pleasant rapport with Krall, makes a number of off-stage asides and witticisms to the crowd, and grooves out unabashedly during the performance pieces while leaning against the piano. The two talk piano and jazz and pop, covering Fats Waller, Bill Evans, Joni Mitchell, and Krall’s favorite, Cole. When they perform John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” together, the results are less than stunning (“lounge-caliber indulgence” is the term that springs to mind), but not as bad as when the two tumble through an awkward, eerily lecherous “Making Whoopee” with Costello at the show’s end.


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Tuesday, Feb 10, 2009

Much like the songwriters’ circle episode from a few weeks back, tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) boasts multiple guests, and as a result, more music than talk. Costello is joined first by M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, who released their collaborative debut, She & Him, last year. Ward describes his predilection for music that blurs the distinctions of time and place—a “healthy confusion”, as he calls it. Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) follows, and emphasizes Ward’s “timeless atmosphere”, a feeling that she chased after on last year’s Acid Tongue. Though She & Him deliver a solid “Change Is Hard” and Lewis shines with “Pretty Bird” and “Carpetbaggers”, the best performance of the episode’s first half is “Go Away”, the final (and strongest) track from Costello’s Momofuku.


Costello chats and performs with Jakob Dylan for the second half of the show. Dylan, after speaking a bit about resisting the desire to distance himself from his father’s influence, performs some acoustic renditions of Wallflowers and solo songs—a plaintive reading of “One Headlight”, in particular, allows Dylan’s sandpapery voice to expand. A somewhat bumbling performance of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” follows, before the entire cast reunites for a stomp through “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding”. There are so many musicians on the stage for this final number that it moves a little too close to a Hall of Fame jam for its own good.


Still, none of these performances can touch Costello’s opening run through Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids”—as Pete Thomas and his daughter Tennessee provide a double-thunder backbeat, Costello lays down a dirty fuzz-wah guitar solo and impassioned vocal, lifting the song up to a primal pedestal.


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Wednesday, Feb 4, 2009

“I’m interested in human beings,” Herbie Hancock tells Elvis Costello on tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel). Hancock, one of the crucial figures in 20th century jazz and winner of last year’s Grammy Award for Album of the Year (River: The Joni Letters), is speaking about his music in relation to its audience, about the bond between the origin of a sound and its destination. The manner in which he breaks down the particulars of performance—whether it be a Gershwin standard, some Headhunters funk, or early-‘80s robo-jazz—makes this episode of Spectacle one of the very best.


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Monday, Feb 2, 2009

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-renowned, Grammy-winning cellist extraordinaire, and his talent matches his level of humility. He is extremely joyous and eager to share his music with the world in such a way that will engage them unlike ever before. He is on a continual quest, searching for new ways to communicate with audiences. When Ma plays a piece of music—you feel it, nowhere is this more audible than on his new album, Songs of Joy and Peace. Ma has collaborated with luminaries from various genres on this project, including James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Renée Fleming, Chris Botti, and Diana Krall, allowing him to move in creative new directions.


America and the rest of the world finds itself in precarious times, and as President Barack Obama takes office, it is no wonder that a candidate who embraced the mantra of change and standing together as one voice chose Ma as an artist to perform at the inaugural ball. Ma’s acute and ever-evolving understanding of his instrument and the role that music plays in a global setting that continues to motivate musicians of all cultural backgrounds to channel that same level of intensity for their craft. In 1998 Ma acted on his ambition by establishing the Silk Road Project to promote the study of the cultural, artistic, and intellectual traditions along the ancient Silk Road trade route that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Silk Road Project has three major goals: to illuminate the historical contributions of the Silk Road; support innovative collaborations between composers and musicians from Asia, Europe, and North America; and explore classical music within a wider global context.


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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009

The silly red hat: it’s back. At first, when I see Elvis Costello wearing that questionable fashion choice once again atop his head while performing (an abridged) “All This Useless Beauty” at the start of tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), I conclude that he must dust the thing off each time a devotee of opera appears on the show. Tonight’s guest, after all, is American soprano Renée Fleming. Alas, my conclusion is premature: halfway through the episode, Costello introduces, as a surprise guest, Rufus Wainwright, who appears wearing the same outfit from his previous episode. This episode, then, was taped on the same day, perhaps the only day that hat made it out from some whimsical closet and into public.


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