On tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Costello brings together Rosanne Cash, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and John Mellencamp for an old-fashioned songwriters’ circle, the kind that Rosanne’s father, Johnny, used to host back in the day. (Indeed, at one of those Cash-helmed circles, Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee” for the first time, as he remembers at one point during the episode.) This format is slightly different than the first seven episodes in the series, as it focuses more on performance than discussion—a total of ten songs are performed over the course of the hour, by far the most songs featured on an episode of Spectacle yet.
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Elvis Costello wears a silly hat throughout this episode of Spectacle. It distracted me. (The offending accessory is a red, short-brimmed fedora that appears to be made from, ahem, velvet.) Is he attempting to be ironic, given that this episode deals with, among other things, pop standards—and, furthermore, that he opens the show with a winking cover of “If I Only Had a Brain”? (A performance that seems to say, Get it, if I only had a brain? Obviously I do have a brain, a big one at that; ergo, what I’m doing here with this song amuses me so.) Does he think that this sort of questionable fashion choice is, in fact, the sort of thing that would impress or entertain a gay man? His guest, after all, is Rufus Wainwright, who makes no mention of the hat, this velveteen red elephant sitting atop the host’s head in a cocked, taunting fashion. (Wainwright does, however, stumble through many an answer—behavior that one could logically attribute to the absurd trauma of having questions posed to you by a man in a funny hat.)
The 1993 music video for “Gentlemen” was my introduction to the Afghan Whigs, who would quickly become one of my favorite bands. At first glance it might seem like a pretty standard-looking rock video, but on closer inspection it reveals itself to be something much stranger.
In the video singer Greg Dulli stalks around a house that looks like a set from Beverly Hills 90210, peering out the windows at the neighbors, snarling and looking more than a little like Joaquin Phoenix (young Joaquin, not new shaggy Joaquin). Behind Dulli, the band is rocking out with such force that it’s hard not to wonder why the Whigs aren’t brought up more as one of the truly great bands of the ‘90s. The song itself is an all-out attack, with Dulli not so much singing the words as spitting them. Recounting a relationship gone sour, you can hear the venom in his voice on lines like “We dragged it out so long this time started to make each other sick” and “I waited for the joke…it never did arrive.” The chorus has him pleading innocence: “Do you understand?! I’m a gentle man!” The delivery of these lines would lead us to believe otherwise.
As Greg walks through the house after peeping on the neighbors, something very strange happens. It cuts from him walking towards the camera, singing, to a large black man walking towards the camera, singing. It then cuts back to Dulli and then to an old (white) man walking towards the camera, singing. Both the big black guy and the little old man are dressed exactly the same as Dulli, suggesting that they in fact ARE Dulli. It’s bizarre and somewhat unsettling and what it’s suggesting is anyone’s guess. The whole video actually, from the sets to the editing, has a very ominous Twin Peaks-like, surreal quality about it. In other words; a great video and a perfect introduction to the Afghan Whigs.
The day before their supposed Final Show Ever at Madison Square Garden on August 7, 2008 (a hyped-up moment to cap the already hyped-up Improbable Reunion Tour), the Police recorded an appearance on Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel). Costello strives to get at the crux of the group’s musical chemistry through individual interviews with Andy Summers, Stuart Copeland, and Sting, but the episode ultimately revolves around their tenuous relationship, breakup, reformation, and second breakup.
Nu-progressive types beware! At first blush, Tony Bennett can seem to be a crotchety old traditionalist, harshly critical of any popular music trend that flirts outside the pages of the Great American Songbook. During his appearance on Elvis Costello’s weekly Spectacle show (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Bennett faults contemporary music for its emphasis on banging and clanging (there’s “too many drums…instead of harmony and melody,” he explains, adding, “and they’re all screaming!”), recalls a time when “the audience was so with the music,” and deems Porter, Gershwin, Ellington, Mercer, and Arlen as “America’s greatest ambassadors.” He even performs Kern and Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” to underscore his position, for anyone still unsure on where Bennett stands.
// Notes from the Road
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