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On Sundance Channel, Elvis Costello takes viewers on a musical journey

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

The theme music to "Spectacle: Elvis Costello With" sounds like a funky version of "Here Comes Santa Claus," an appropriate coincidence since this talk show, debuting Wednesday on the Sundance Channel, is a gift for diehard music lovers.

Those with only a fleeting interest in the history of pop, jazz and blues are advised to skip the party. While the program boasts familiar guests, the conversation leans toward the obscure: Elton John mimicking Leon Russell's piano playing, Lou Reed revealing the "secret chord" in "Sweet Jane," former President Bill Clinton gushing over jazz artists who have about as big a public profile as Franklin Pierce does in the world of politics.

"It's not a show about trying to uncover a dark secret that somebody's got hidden," said Costello, who also serves as an executive producer. "Rather, it's an opportunity to talk about some things artists don't get to talk about in a regular show-biz interview."

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better tour guide than Costello, who burst onto the scene as an angry young punk, tearing into corporate radio and angels dying to wear his red shoes. But over the course of four decades, he has proven to be one of pop's most unpredictable and daring adventurers, exploring soul ("Get Happy!"), country ("Almost Blue"), classical ("The Juliet Letters"), Tin Pan Alley ("Painted From Memory") and New Orleans R&B ("The River in Reverse") with open-eyed enthusiasm.

That curiosity serves him well on the new program, as it did in 2003 when he subbed for an ailing David Letterman on "The Late Show," flirting with guest Kim Cattrall and performing a parody version of "Alison." In retrospect, Costello felt the experience hit some flat notes.

"I learned one very crucial thing and that is you shouldn't take too much for granted in terms of having prior knowledge of the person," said Costello, who conducts "Spectacle" interviews with a stack of notes almost as high as James Lipton's pile on "Inside the Actors Studio."

"Eddie Izzard was on that night, and I had met him a few times, so I made assumptions that that would get us through the interview. In fact, I felt I could have done better."

Despite Costello's less-than-glowing review of himself, the future producers of "Spectacle," who included Elton John, were impressed.

"The light bulb kind of went off, like, 'He can do that, too?" said creator Stephen Warden, a former music journalist. "It was pretty impressive."

Not that Costello is ready to take Mike Wallace's place on "60 Minutes," but his stature as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member allows him to broach subjects, and get responses, that you'll never hear on a typical talk show. Clinton talks about his late-night hours in the makeshift "music room" in the White House; Tony Bennett shares a hilarious, revealing anecdote about his conversation with Hank Williams, and Reed, perhaps for the first time in his storied career, cracks a smile.

"I think there's a real difference in the way Elvis runs the show," said co-executive producer Martin Katz, who also worked on the movie "Hotel Rwanda." The interviews are fantastically revealing because he's having a peer-to-peer discussion.

Those concerned that the program will come across as a highbrow college seminar should note that it's not all chit-chat; it's also a hootenanny.

Costello opens most shows with a song, usually by one of his guests. For the episode featuring Reed, he strums through a loving version of "Femme Fatale," accompanied by violin, accordion and mandolin. In the case of Clinton, he tears through the early Elvis Presley hit "Mystery Train" with the help of James Burton, Presley's guitarist. Costello and Elton John, duetting for the first time, deliver a haunting version of David Ackles' should-be classic "Down River."

Don't know Ackles, an Illinois-born songwriter of the 1960s and '70s? Well, that's kind of the point.

"This is a program that, in a way, eulogizes those people," John says in the maiden episode. "You've got to go out there and discover them."

And just what new artists should audiences be discovering? On that question, the loquacious Costello is surprisingly elusive.

"I've been listening to quite a few new artists, but I'm always a bit reluctant to name them," he said. "It's not because I can't recall their names. It's because they might not necessarily want my stamp of approval. It might make them unhip."

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