[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]
The talk show format is so entrenched in television history that it's really hard to do something fresh in the genre. A guy or gal sits behind a desk (or maybe on a couch or stool) and talks to famous people who are usually plugging something. There can be tweaks (think James Lipton's "Inside the Actor's Studio"), but before long, the new approach becomes standard, too. That is why I was so impressed with the new music-themed talk show on the Sundance Channel, "Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ..." (new episodes air Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern). It's fair to say that we now have a genuinely unique take on the genre.
A lot of the freshness of "Spectacle" flows from the host. Costello is not completely new to the talk show world, having sat in for David Letterman on a couple of occasions in the past. But what makes Costello such an interesting presence is that not only is he relaxed, conversational, entertaining and funny, but he is also a genuine student and fan of music. So when he interacts with his guest (the series premiere featured Elton John), he offers insight and passion that is missing from most television interviews.
The debut began with Elvis and his all-star backing band (including several members of his outfit, the Impostors, along with piano legend Allen Toussaint) performing Elton John's "Border Song," a savvy choice as the rhythms and flow of the number played to Costello's strengths as a performer.
Costello then introduced John, big-band style (with musical accompaniment and carnival barker lines like "Duke Ellington was not a real duke"), and the two dove headfirst into a joyous discussion of music. It reminded me of the final scene in Cameron Crowe's film "Almost Famous," when the rock star (played by Billy Crudup) finally sits for an interview with Patrick Fugit's teenage reporter and responds to the question of what he likes about music with: "To begin with, everything." Costello and John got into a discussion of influences, with names like Laura Nyro, Leon Russell, David Ackles and Carole King being thrown around fast and furiously. And they talked about these musicians (and others, like Norah Jones and Rufus Wainwright) not in a detached, academic way, but more like two friends talking about their buddies. It was a great dynamic for the viewer, more listening in than being shut out.
What makes Costello such a perfect host for the show is that he is a true equal in the discussion. When John made a reference to King, Costello quickly noted that she was already an established songwriter by the time she broke through as an artist with the classic album "Tapestry." Recognizing a subtle point like that enriched the whole conversation.
"Spectacle" takes a 180-degree opposite approach to the questioning from a program like Lipton's "Inside the Actor's Studio." The queries did not consist of a fawning and academic chronological rundown of John's work. Instead, discussions circled back to some of his albums, not always in any kind of logical order. The conversation dictated the biography, not the other way around. So it was more natural and less forced than most talk show conversations.
And because Costello could engage John as a colleague, it led to stories that strayed from the tried-and-true anecdotes we've all heard about a performer like John, who has been in the public spotlight for so long. Nothing felt rehashed. We didn't just hear stories about how John and long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin write separately, but we were treated to anecdotes about a young Taupin staying with John in his mom's house in suburban North London, and how the two men would go to the record store each day to pick up music that they could ferociously study and dissect to see why it all worked.
John added astute observations, like how much more varied the musical influences were then (soul, blues, folk and pop all being thrown into one big barrel), and more amusing ones, like how he and Taupin always looked for the American pressings of records because the cardboard was better, and how English fans considered the U.S. issues of records to be the definitive versions, while American fans felt that way about the U.K. ones.
And the relaxed, conversational style also coaxed more personal stories from John, with Costello content to let his guest speak without interruption for long stretches, something you would be less likely to witness from a classic talk show host. John's confessions ranged from how Russell's acceptance of him gave him the confidence to succeed as a performer, how important Taupin is to him (they've never had an argument in 41 years), how his ambition was to have any job in music (musician, executive, even record store clerk) so he was thrilled but surprised to be a pop star, and how much he learned about stage craft when, before he was a successful solo artist, he played in Patti LaBelle's back-up band (which featured a pre-Supremes Cindy Birdsong). John also lamented how artists in the 1960s were not compensated properly, telling a story about how he picked up Martha and the Vandellas at the airport when they came to England for a tour, but it was "shocking" that he had to give them money because they didn't have funds to pick up their dry cleaning.
I think my favorite moment of the show was when Costello and John discussed their stage names. Costello admitted that his manager came up with his, and he seemed happy enough about it (saying he wore it like "a suit of armor"), noting that if he performed under his real name, Declan MacManus, the audience would be "expecting a guy in a cable-knit sweater singing whaling songs." But the name change seemed more personal for John, who was born Reginald Dwight, even though he picked it in a hurry (Elton was the name of his sax player). At first, he mirrored Costello's approach, expressing that "if you're going to make a record, Reg Dwight is not going to make it." But he went on to explain that he no longer thinks of himself as Reginald Dwight and hates when people call him that, even relating that he used to cringe when Eric Clapton insisted on calling him Reg (but that he couldn't stand up to Clapton "because he's God"). The discussion produced an insight into John's vulnerability that you wouldn't catch in virtually any other talk show.
It was also helpful that there was a piano on stage, so John could hop on to explain some of his points, whether it was how his "Burn Down the Mission" was heavily influenced by Nyro's groundbreaking writing style (she "broke the template"), or how Russell's piano style differed from his own (complete with a dead-on impression of Russell's playing and singing).
By the time Costello and John, joined by the band, dueted on Ackles's "Down River" to wrap up the show, the hour had flown by, and the line between performance and talk show, interview and conversation, had been completely blurred, producing something wonderful and unique.
Future episodes will feature diverse guests like Lou Reed (with Julian Schnabel), James Taylor, the Police, Tony Bennett, Rufus Wainwright, Herbie Hancock and some little known sax player named Bill Clinton who held some other important job outside of music.
"Spectacle" is a real treat, an opportunity to listen in as a great performer and songwriter like Costello, who also happens to be especially engaging, hangs out and jams with some of the most important musicians of the last 50 years.
Early in his career, in 1981, Costello proved himself to be mature and insightful (as well as funny) in a great interview with Tom Snyder on the "Tomorrow Show." (You can watch the interview and performances, part one here and part two here, including Costello discussing his famous dust-up on "Saturday Night Live.") It's not surprising that the young punk rocker would grow up to be a stellar television host himself, even if he rejects the notion of "maturing" in the interview. If Snyder was still alive, I have no doubt he would heartily approve of "Spectacle." I certainly do. And if you give it a watch, I'm sure you will, too.