Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… — Episode 2

Since we’re in the thick of the holiday season, I should mention that the instrumental theme song to Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) is incredibly similar to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” — specifically, the “He knows when you are sleeping” line. Except that last note (“sleeping”) goes pear-shaped on what sounds like an oboe. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUUUUH. Subliminal holiday tie-in? Or have the seasonal jingles merely corrupted my sentimental (and susceptible) brain?

For the second episode of his weekly talk show, Costello welcomes yet another musical icon. This time the featured guest is Lou Reed, who receives a hero’s welcome after Costello performs an acoustic yet acid-tongued cover of “Femme Fatale” (featuring Steve Nieve on accordion, Larry Campbell on mandolin, Tony Garnier on stand-up bass, and Jenny Scheinman on fiddle). It’s a spirited rendition of an overplayed song that doesn’t so much make it new as make it newly exciting — and it’s the best musical performance of the episode (but more on that later).

Reed’s a great guest — he looks like a blue collar guy off the street, with his sleeves rolled up and legs spread wide, and his dry wit projects an everyman image at odds with his own circumstances. He details his musical upbringing in New York City, working as a songwriter for budget labels and meeting his own idol, Doc Pomus. (In an especially touching moment, he tells the story behind Pomus’ writing “Save the Last Dance for Me”.) The conversation is most interesting when Reed talks about his dedication to realness (an old Velvet Underground motto, he says, was “no blues licks” — “we haven’t earned the right”) and the songwriting process. “I don’t want to sound new age or mystical,” he says when speaking about his own personal writing habits. “But whatever it is, I can’t conjure it up.”

For the second half of the show, Costello and Reed are joined by artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), a friend of Reed’s who recently directed the concert film of Reed’s Berlin album. After an awkward start (he seems taken aback by Costello’s “serious questions”), Schnabel delivers the lyrics to Reed’s “Rock Minuet” as an off-the-cuff, spoken-word performance. Next to Costello’s opening cover, it’s the most intriguing performance of the night.

If only the same could be said for the two songs that Costello and Reed stumble through together. “Perfect Day” is a tone-deaf nightmare, Reed’s blunt tawk layered gracelessly atop Costello’s lounge-y croon; and their attempt at “Set the Twilight Reeling” is the sort of overlong, grasping thing that gives spontaneity a bad name. In its second week, Spectacle continues to deliver an unexpected alternative to talk and variety shows — but not all unexpected alternatives are welcome, I suppose.