DVD Review: Spectacle - Elvis Costello: Season 2
SEASON 1 REVIEW
Elvis Costello now has a short (seven episode) second season of his Sundance channel music talk show series Spectacle available on video. It features the talents of U2, Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe, Levon Helm, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen and a handful of mostly forgettable lesser knowns that Elvis digs.
I want to start out with one general beef before we get to notes on individual episodes. In the limited time allotment, they play an awful lot of mediocre and worse songs in these shows. Some of this comes from purely indulging guests by playing crappy recent songs rather than any of the stuff that really made their names. Yet Elvis carries on like the obviously crappy songs are great meaningful classics, and in fairness to his guests Elvis was the one specifically asking for some of the uninteresting songs. But then again, the actual playing of songs is not necessarily the most interesting or important part of most of this series.
The first show of the season featured Bono and the Edge from U2. They played a couple of U2 songs, but they were recent crappy songs from guys who have done great work - but not in the last 15 years. They did not play even one good U2 song in an hour. The best U2 song of the night was Elvis playing "Mysterious Ways" in his delirious and beautifully over the top introduction. That was worth seeing. Elvis takes great pride in the mash-ups he makes with his and his guest's songs. It was groovy how he meshed "Pump It Up" with "Get Your Boots On" and even more interesting watching the bonus feature showing how Elvis engineered this. But again, the boots song is just not any good.
Bono and the Edge were very interesting to hear chatting with Elvis however, talking about their roots or lack of roots if you will. The highlight of the episode turned out to be about Frank Sinatra, with whom Bono had worked on one of Sinatra's duet albums. So they had a couple of stories, and the Edge in particular had a poignant little anecdote about Sinatra and a napkin. They had actually written a song intended for Sinatra that he never recorded. They sang "Two Shots of Happy and One Shot of Sad" which was way the best musical performance of the night. It won't make you forget "One For My Baby" which is the obvious broad model, but it's pretty good. Also, look for an interesting bonus performance with Bono singing "Alison".
The second episode features a guitar pull where he brings in several songwriters to play their songs. In this case, they include Ron Sexsmith, Neko Case, Jesse Winchester, and Sheryl Crow. The problem with this is that these people are not particularly noteworthy songwriters - though maybe I need to check Neko Case out further. I know Elvis has drug Sexsmith around as an opening act, but why escapes me. He played his signature song "Secret Heart." I can't quite remember how it goes, and I'm listening to it right now as I'm writing. He seems like a really nice fellow, though.
I particularly object to Sheryl Crow being on the stage of the Apollo. Worse than bad, she's utterly mediocre. I note that she herself didn't think that "All I Want to Do" was particularly good, and that indeed it barely made the album. I concur with her low opinion of her main hit, although I guess it had a marginally catchy tune. Tonight she sang "If It Makes You Happy." Elvis gushes a bit about the intelligence and soul combined in her songs. I hear neither. I get the very strong impression that her biggest talent is political, schmoozing up to the right people to advance her career. She also sang another boring and unmemorable thing called "Leaving Las Vegas."
Neko Case was interesting talking about Harry Nilsson and just an interesting sideways comment about Roger Miller. She sang Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me" as something particularly meaningful to her. Again, it's just not that good a song to my ears. She sang a much more interesting original song "Prison Girls." "I love your long shadows and your gun powder eyes" Actually, that's a decent hook, and a little weird and unusual. It's got some dynamics and some real drama. This was WAY the highlight of the night. I might actually have to hunt down the album. We'd have been better off if he'd ditched these other clowns and spent the hour just with her.
Elvis introduced Jesse Winchester with a little bit of liberal jerking off about how as a young man making his first record in the early 70s he'd followed his conscience and fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Elvis suggested that maybe not being able to play in the US was the reason these amazing records didn't become popular. An alternate explanation would be that he just wasn't very good. I can't say that for sure, not having actually heard those records - but he did absolutely nothing here to make me the least bit curious to hunt them down. At Elvis' request, he played "Brand New Tennesse Waltz" which was apparently the first song he ever wrote. He also played a very nice, sincere little new song "Sham-a-Ling Ding-Dong". I don't want to be hateful about a perfectly lovely fellow, but again there's just nothing memorable about these songs. It was rather touching to see how that last song made Neko Case cry, though I'm not sure why it did.
The only really first rate song of the night (give or take "Prison Girls") was Elvis' classic "Everyday I Write the Book" performed primarily by Ron Sexsmith, whom Elvis credited with rescuing a song he'd "fell out of love with" even though it is probably his biggest US hit single. This was an interesting example of an artist not being the best judge of their own work. Elvis said that he just dashed that one off, and felt like he'd made a hash of the original recording. He once described it as "a bad Smokey Robinson song." That's exactly right- and it is the absolute best bad Smokey Robinson song ever.
Sexsmith and Elvis perform it here with entirely different meaning from the hit single, as a sincere dramatic song. Presenting all the densely packed cutesy lyrical metaphors about writing a book seriously like this sounds a little silly to me when I stop to think about it, but it works really well anyway because it's one of the catchiest damned tunes the man ever wrote. It's cool to hear how the song could be adapted to a completely different emotional effect. Elvis just doesn't seem to appreciate that this song, the cheeky arrangement and the beautifully cheesy MTV video with Charles and Diana made for a really brilliant and perhaps even profound joke. You really should get his collection of vintage early videos The Right Spectacle if you don't own it already.
The third episode might be the best of the season. In the theory multiple guests end up short changing all of them, but this set up worked particularly well, because it all wound around Levon Helm. He was there against doctor's orders, and literally spoke exactly one sentence in the whole show - which was enough to demonstrate that he really no-fooling couldn't talk or sing at that moment - though he seemed otherwise perfectly healthy and did quite well in letting the drums do the talking. But everything else wound around him and the Band. New Orleans piano and songwriting legend Allen Toussaint actually worked with the Band. Besides getting a little of his style, he had good stories of working with the Band. Elvis' oldest bestest musical buddy Nick Lowe is always a pleasure to see, and had his own sideways story of how somehow the Band used his home in London for rehearsal space way before anyone would have known him. Plus, he had the story of writing "The Beast in Me" which those who know would rate as one of Johnny Cash's greatest records. It didn't sound too far off right after Lowe sang the song for Elvis to describe him as England's greatest songwriter.
The introduction from Elvis was especially beautiful, riffing on "Rag Mama Rag" while he poetically announced the greatest guitar picker walking the Earth. "All those louder fellows better scatter and run, cause his name is 'Thompson' like the tommy gun." Richard Thompson played "Shoot Out the Lights" which is always excellent and he was in particularly fine form, plus this was the only live performance of the song I've seen with a rock band - Elvis' Imposters, including ever loving Steve Nieve. Oh, hell yeah. Thompson didn't have a personal history with Helm or the Band, but the most interesting talking of the night to me was his explanation of how and why the Music From Big Pink album made such a big impression on him and Fairport Convention. By the time they got through their set up of thoughts and reminiscences and put these guys altogether in one group, they really wailed on "The Weight." This was one badass band. Watching this was definitely an hour well spent.
The other best show of these season was the Elvis solo show, with Mary-Louise Parker as guest interviewer. I guess she's something of a big name herself, though I had never heard of her before. In any case, she was a perfect person for this, an informed and articulate high level fan. I especially appreciate her special love for Imperial Bedroom, which album apparently makes her want to tear her hair out and "have sex with the wrong person". Elvis had some interesting things to say about his songwriting, but most especially he was in top form in his playing. He played a couple of older songs that are big favorites of mine that he doesn't play very often. At least he's never played them any time I've seen him. "Motel Matches" is a beautiful country song. George Jones or Randy Travis or someone should really cover this. Best of all, he did "So Like Candy", about a girlfriend who has committed suicide. This was beautiful and dynamic and heart rending. If he's going to keep up this Spectacle series, he really should do a solo show like this every season.
The last three episodes went downhill somewhat. The fifth episode featured John Prine, Lyle Lovett and Ray LaMontagne. This show definitely suffered from too many guests and not being able to do justice to any of them. Elvis really digs this Ray LaMontagne, but he's just not that good. He did a nice Levon Helm imitation filling in for him vocally on "TheWeight" in that second episode, and he's a decent singer, but he got two songs here to Lovett and Prine getting one apiece - and neither of them were particularly impressive. "Henry Nearly Killed Me" wasn't bad, I suppose. John Prine sang "Lake Marie" which is decent but not particularly his best work. It was interesting that they spent maybe half his interview talking about the background and the composing of that song though, and he had some interesting brief exposition on his early career. The most interesting aspect there was his attitude from those days, with seemingly no idea that he would ever make any kind of living as a musician. Lyle Lovett played "Natural Forces." This wasn't bad, but not nearly his best song. He just really didn't get time to present properly. They really should have made an episode for Prine, and an episode for Lovett.
The last two episodes of the season were the least interesting, a double feature with Bruce Springsteen. I understand that Springsteen is a living legend and about the biggest draw you could get, but the sycophancy for the man is ridiculous. Also, in two hours Springsteen did not play even one of his good songs. The only thing was a quick demo verse of "The River." The only top flight Springsteen song was Elvis singing "She's the One" in his introduction.
Part of this came from Springsteen obviously wanting to play more recent material, but in fairness to The Boss, some of this was by specific requests from Elvis. One part of this comes from Elvis throughout the series really talking about and emphasizing lyrics, often with disregard to tunes - which are what good songs are really about. Thus, the only early song Springsteen played was "Wild Bill's Circus Story". Elvis requested this song, carrying on about the weird circus images in the lyrics. The song just doesn't have a memorable melody. A slavish Springsteen fan might remember a couple of phrases of lyric, but I defy anyone to sing this melody from memory.
They also make a big point, again at Elvis' request, of featuring "American Skin (41 Shots)". This was somewhat noteworthy because for some reason there was a bit of public uproar about this exposition of a news story of cops shooting an unarmed man several dozen times when he reached for his wallet. Springsteen caught a lot of flack over this song at the time, though I can't understand why. Shooting an unarmed man 41 times is bad, m'kay? I find the lyrics boring because they're just not particularly challenging for a protest song. I suppose the fact that the song actually turned out to be very controversial in some quarters speaks against my take there. But in any case, this song was just not MUSICALLY interesting whatsoever. It's bland. The "Galveston Bay" song that Elvis specially requested in the second hour was even less interesting, but I guess it's profound because it's got something to do with the Vietnam war being bad. Elvis made a point in his solo show about not reading books. Maybe if he did a little more reading, he'd be a little less easily impressed with mundane pop song lyrics.
In the first hour though, Springsteen did have some interesting talk about the early history of the E Street Band, and about the idea of casting them as an R&B band, rather than a rock and roll or rock band. The most interesting part of Springsteen's shows was his extensive commentary about Sam and Dave. This led to way the highlight of the musical aspect of his appearance, making like Sam and Dave with Elvis singing "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" to conclude the first episode. You can well appreciate in that moment why Springsteen thought it took a lot of sack for them to be doing this on the stage of the Apollo.
Frankly, they'd have been better off to stop there. The second episode was actually worse than a waste, actively detracting from the pretty good first episode. There was a somewhat pleasant aspect for fans in talking about their personal friendship. Their wives are apparently big buddies, and it was nice to hear Elvis singing Patti Scialfa's praises, even singing one of her songs. That was sweet.
The rest of the episode went rapidly into just ridiculous political nonsense. They didn't go into strident fists in the air, but really far worse - a kind of gentle and understated mutual act of utterly unearned moral superiority. They had really a rather bizarre discussion of Obama's inaugaration, without ever mentioning his name or the word inaugaration. Somehow this became a big historical moment centered around the vindication of Pete Seeger. They showed Seeger's picture without mentioning the commie that got elected president. It seems rather telling that this ridiculous old communist is apparently the moral compass and viewpoint character for Springsteen and Costello.
This paragraph is maybe more about me than them, but I found the last half hour of this difficult to watch. On reflection, I find it embarassing to watch Elvis Costello carrying on in such a cheap and tawdry level of moral self inflation. His music means very much to me, more probably than any other one musician living or dead. Yet here's a guy who's my personal hero indulging in this public moral masturbation. "I've always denied that there was even a political song. There was just an emotional reaction to events" This explains the ridiculous lyrical sentiments of a lovely song like "Tramp the Dirt Down." He's speaking out on matters of conscience, as he likes to say. Nigga please, I say.
Then there's Bruce Springsteen carrying on with ridiculous nonsense politics he apparently picked up from reading Rolling Stone thirty years ago, carrying on about how bad it was with mean old Reagan "crushing the middle class and the people underneath." I'll just point out briefly that this talk has no relationship whatsoever with actual reality on the ground, where things got better over his time for the big majority of all people - as opposed to the Marxist they were so proud of electing in 2008 who has truly brought misery and hardship on a lot of people and has driven our country to the edge of real destruction. Being bazillionare rock stars however, life is cushy and secure for the likes of Springsteen and Elvis, and they can indulge in this wishful thinking without consequence.
After which jerking off, they went for the big finish of the season playing "The Rising." He plays it like it's some epic, but it's just not a memorable song. To me, it's epically boring. But hey, the crowd was happy.
Elvis Costello Is King
Music Sustains the Soul
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