As he enters his fourth decade as a professional musician, Elvis Costello has successfully parlayed his experience as a chameleonic rock ‘n’ roller into some sort of self-appointed ambassadorial role. He dabbles in jazz and classical, unpacks his pop-addled brain into articles for Vanity Fair, and caters to both high and low art, all while affecting the genteel air of well-rounded elder statesman of the pop intelligentsia.
This evolution hasn’t gone unnoticed by his audience; even the most forgiving of his devotees, myself included, can’t help but admit that this preoccupation with tastemaking has blunted Costello’s own music, which has moved from innovative to professorial throughout the last decade. And yet, it is for this very reason that the notion to give Costello his own musical talk show at this point in his career makes perfect sense.
Each week on Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (premiering tonight at 9pm ET/PT on the Sundance Channel), Costello sits down with a featured guest or panel (all of them, save Bill Clinton, are musicians) for an in-depth discussion of their art. Some have likened the formula to Inside the Actors Studio, but as a host, Costello is more of an active participant than distant interrogator. He opens each show by covering a song written by or associated with that episode’s artist, and later performs alongside the guest; there is no constant house band, and so each week brings a new lineup of musicians who perform throughout the hour.
At the start of the first episode, Costello and his assembled band — Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher of the Imposters, with Allen Toussaint on piano and James Burton on guitar — run through a spirited cover of “Border Song”, in honor of guest Sir Elton John. (Later, John plays a funky version of Toussaint’s “Working in the Coal Mine”, and duets with Costello on David Ackles’ “Down River” — two unexpected choices that seem to indicate the show’s willingness to diverge and surprise.) John (who, incidentally, is one of the show’s executive producers) is a warm and amiable subject for Spectacle‘s debut — like Costello, John is an encyclopedia of pop and rock history, and proves to be a connoisseur worthy to rival his host.
The conversation quickly moves from a Q&A to a more relaxed discussion about record collecting, musical obsession, songwriting (John insists that he and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, are never in the same room when they are writing), and commercial success. Costello and John have professional stage names in common, a connection that yields some great insight into the adoption of a new identity — the “suit of armor or Superman suit”, as Costello calls it.
The first hour unfolds organically; after John talks at length about the impact that singer-songwriters like Laura Nyro and David Ackles had on him, it’s only natural that he and Costello close out the show with an Ackles cover. It’s refreshing, then, that Spectacle can deliver a thoughtful talk show about music that avoids the cheap traps of self-promotion — these days, it seems an impossible prospect. And though it’s not a total refutation of celebrity (the two middle-aged men, stuffed into their crisp suits and hard-angled glasses — true spectacles! — are not immune from a certain haughty elegance), Spectacle has all the makings of something to look forward to for the next 13 weeks.