Perhaps a guy like Elvis Costello will never completely mellow, but these days he’s not so much about biting the hand that feeds. Instead he’s shaking the hands of fellow music icons, as they join him onstage at the Apollo Theater where he interviews, jokes and jams with them. The storied Harlem venue has been the site this fall for much of the production for Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …, Costello’s new talk-music show that begins airing on the Sundance Channel on December 3rd. The lineup suits Costello’s unbridled musical curiosity and ambition: Guests range from Lou Reed and the Police to Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett and Rufus Wainwright.
From punk provocateur to pop crooner, Costello has played many parts over three decades, but TV host? Well, yeah, even that. He sat behind the desk at the Late Show one night in 2003, filling in for an ailing David Letterman. Veteran music writer/producer Stephen Warden took notice, and a few years later — with Elton John joining the gig as a co-producer (and a guest star) — Costello is free to let his inner musicologist rock out.
“I’m not really thinking of the show in larger terms,” Costello says. “I’m hoping that the conversations will be entertaining and may reveal something we didn’t know about the subject, and perhaps about myself in the nature of the questions that I ask.”
For this, his rep as a musician’s musician pays off. The famously aloof Lou Reed picks up a six-string and demonstrates how he came up with the chord pattern for “Sweet Jane”: “I mean, there are so many ways to do it,” Reed says matter-of-factly. Rufus Wainwright lets on that he’d love to have his songs covered by Annie Lennox or Björk. Jakob Dylan describes casting off the weight of his dad’s legacy to do some solo acoustic tunes.
Much of the show is scored against an all-star display of live music. Backstage one night, veteran Attractions drummer Pete Thomas talks about a particularly charged performance with Smokey Robinson, who had done his first gig at the Apollo as a teenager. “He described 50 years of playing on this stage,” Thomas says. “So by the time we came on to back him, it was like, we’d better be pretty fucking good, you know! It was incredibly exciting.”
Then there was the convergence with the Police. Costello and the band had just been opening for Sting and the boys on their farewell tour. “We had a few jam sessions on the tour,” Thomas says. “You know, they’re really nice people. All that stuff about how they all hate each other, it’s nonsense.” Now the two bands were jamming together onstage at the Apollo. “Back in the day, nobody would have ever believed that would happen.” And drumming alongside Stewart Copeland? “It was great fun, and really interesting getting inside his playing.” Another night, Costello is setting the stage for one of the loftier genre-bending episodes, featuring Rufus Wainwright and opera diva Renee Fleming. He greets the audience sporting a dark suit, tilted fedora and his trademark thick-frame glasses. “This may not even be in the show,” he says, stepping up to the mike, an acoustic strapped around his neck. “Here’s one for nothing.” He fills the theater with a ringing version of “All This Useless Beauty” from his 1996 album of the same title.
A bit of mayhem follows with the stage setup. “Sorry about all this starting and stopping,” he says, “but this is the magic of television.”
Soon, Wainwright is seated at the grand piano, delivering a lush vocal on “Memphis Skyline.” The two get into some heady discussion about the songwriting process. But even on a night when Costello will talk standards with Wainwright and librettos with Fleming, the rock & roll still seeps in. He asks Wainwright about young artists wandering astray — the drugs and drink and such — with Costello noting his own “loss of moral bearings” early in his career. Says Wainwright, “I’m a strong believer in what Nick Cave said: If you’re a songwriter, you kind of have to go to the dark side for a while.”
The younger generation guests invited on the show all seem to revere Costello, speaking of a genuine connection with him. “He’s just got this incredibly welcoming vibe and he puts you at ease,” says Jenny Lewis, prior to going onstage one night. “You feel like you’re in good hands to come up and play a song that you’ve never actually played before.” For the finale that night she joins Costello and the band, along with Jakob Dylan and Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s She & Him, for “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” “We’ve really just practiced it twice,” Lewis said, “but I think we all trust that it’s about the spirit of it.”
Costello’s enthusiasm for the whole project has left the show’s editors a big job — many of the interview segments went on quite long. “He really does his homework,” observed Thomas, who has drummed with Costello for 30 years. “His heart is so in it.”
So in it, in fact, that Elvis sometimes refused to leave the building. “I mean, he was fascinated by Smokey Robinson, and he was going to stay with it,” said Thomas. “They were talking about how soul songs should tell a story, even if you don’t tell the ending and you’ve got to leave people guessing… all this great stuff. At one point they tried to shut down the stage — you know, union costs and all this — and Elvis was like, ‘I’m talking to Smokey Robinson. This is not negotiable.’ ”
Next month, an audience will finally see how it plays out on the tube. Hall of Famer Costello is still quick to point out that he’s not a professional TV host. “I hope that people will not find that a negative, but rather that it’s real,” he says. “I’m trying to do something that’s immediately conversational. At times we’ve had some very surprising exchanges.”
In the end it’s got to come down to the music, though, and an episode isn’t complete until Costello calls all the guests back onstage each night and straps on his guitar one more time.