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Monday, June 13, 2011

Elvis Costello's Spectacle

Three years ago, Elvis Costello debuted a show on the Sundance Channel called "Spectacle," which also aired on British and Canadian TV. It was part performance, mostly conversation, with musical guests sitting down to discuss not just their own careers, but also their admiration for other artists.

I couldn't watch the show because, at the time, we had Dish Network, which didn't carry Sundance. Now, we've switched to AT&T's U-Verse, but the show's not in production anymore. Fortunately, Netflix has just begun streaming that first season of Spectacle, and I spent several hours this weekend absorbing it.

It's a remarkable series, made even more so by the depth of Elvis' musical knowledge. It's clear he's done his homework and is truly involved in the discussions -- it's not just a list of questions and talking points. He really knows his stuff, particularly when it comes to the history of American pop and rock music. Not only do his guests open up to him, but they often agree spontaneously to perform a song, sometimes an obscure one, as Elvis joins in to provide harmonies.

The first episode features Elton John (an easy get since he's one of the executive producers), who spend most of the hour talking about musical influences among the singer/songwriters of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the era in which he first hit it big. They discuss Laura Nyro, Leon Russell, Randy Newman, Allen Toussaint, and others. The conversation also drifts to why both of them changed their names -- Elvis from Declan McManus and Elton from Reginald Dwight, a moniker he knew could never fit a rock star.

On another episode, Smokey Robinson explains how he wrote all those classic songs for specific Motown acts, what the Apollo Theater meant to him, and how he was influenced by Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. There's an hour with James Taylor, in which he talks about his roots growing up in North Carolina in a family that listened to show tunes, folk artists like Leadbelly and The Weavers, and the ever-present country music on the radio.

Elvis also snagged The Police at the end of their reunion tour for a show in which the animosity between the band members was still palpable. They sat and performed together, but he also talked with each of the trio individually. Here's an example of the kind of question Elvis can ask because of his own musicality -- regarding whether Sting, when writing his first big hit, envisioned it with a reggae beat, and how he looked to one of Elvis' songs when choosing the name for his protagonist...

I'm looking forward to the second season of "Spectacle," which includes an hour with Bono and The Edge, as well as a two-parter with Bruce Springsteen. Unfortunately, it's not on DVD or online yet, but in the meantime, I strongly recommend you check out that first season, which is streaming now on Netflix.