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.
All five singer-songwriters get in on the action with performances of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and the aforementioned “Me and Bobby McGee”, but this episode works best when a performer performs alone. Kristofferson delivers killer renditions of two of his best songs, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Here Comes That Rainbow Again”, his gruff, aged voice shading the tunes with wise humor. Jones, too, offers a particular highlight with a performance of “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart”, an unfinished Hank Williams song she recently worked on for an upcoming project. Often pigeonholed as a lite-jazz singer, Jones (who grew up in Texas) gives a subtle performance here that’s tinged with the soft-focused twang and longing of country music.
In addition to a new song he co-wrote with T-Bone Burnett (the decent “From Sulfur to Sugarcane”, a tune he debuted on tour last year), Costello performs “April 5th”, another new song co-written with Cash and Kristofferson. Cash and Kristofferson trade the verses, while Costello handles the choruses with a raspy, quiet falsetto — a tender assist in an episode where singers are sometimes better left alone.