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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With...: "Elton John"

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I've been a fan of Elvis Costello ever since I found a copy of This Year's Model in the "Nice Price" bin when I was 14. My first three years of Costello fandom happened in a big rush: I'd buy a new album out of the budget rack roughly every month, and read whatever I could find about Costello in rock history books and old issues of Rolling Stone, and eventually I even got to see Costello live with Nick Lowe at Vanderbilt University, in 1987. Through it all, despite some flashes of brightness like the "Everyday I Write The Book" video and his stage banter at the Vandy show, I had a vision in my head of Costello as an angry man, fueled by alcohol and spite. In the years since–really starting with the Spike album, some of which Costello previewed at Vanderbilt–Costello has seemed much more like a gracious, gregarious old-school entertainer. The old darkness may still be there (it does come out in his songs at times), but in public, Costello has become the kind of happy-go-lucky dude who jokes around with Stephen Colbert and David Letterman and collaborates with everyone from Burt Bacharach to Bruce Springsteen. To the disgruntlement of some fans who prefer the edgier Costello, he's become something of an institution.

It's that institutionalized Costello who now shows up as the host of a new limited series talk show on The Sundance Channel. Starting tonight and for the next twelve Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. eastern, Costello sits down with rock legends, troubadours, pop stars, country veterans, jazz heroes, soul men and one ex-president. First up: Elton John, who's also Spectacle's executive producer. After an opening in which Costello sings "Border Song" with Allen Toussaint, Elvis and Elton sit and chat about music, sharing their mutual affection for the likes of Lauro Nyro, Rufus Wainwright and David Ackles. Later, the two duet on Ackles' "Down River," a little-known song that they render beautifully.

There's something appealing about the idea of two famous musicians speaking collegially, and that's especially true in the case of a veteran superstar like Elton John, who reminisces here about his modest early days backing R&B; legends when they toured the UK, and palling around with Leon Russell. John also reveals the influence of The Band and Van Morrison on Tumbleweed Connection, and admits that he always got a little thrill when he heard one of his songs covered by a legend like Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles.

But here's the question: Does the obvious camaraderie of these two men make Elton cooler, or Elvis less so? The answer, of course, is that Costello stopped being "cool" a long time ago. That the man who once personified New Wave anti-authoritarianism can now converse so comfortably and publicly with the man who once personified '70s AM commercialism only proves that both men are working musicians first and foremost, and as such have outlasted whatever they used to represent. There's something appealing about that, too. And when Costello and John explain to each other why they changed their names for show business–with the former Declan McManus saying that his real name would've led audiences to expect "a guy in cable-knit sweaters singing whaling songs"–it's humanizing in a way that their original stage personae rarely were.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-I've taken a look at the three upcoming episodes: one with Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel (airing 12/10); one with Bill Clinton (12/17); and one with Tony Bennett (12/31). The Reed/Schnabel episode is pretty scattered, given both subjects' legendary elusiveness, and the duet between Reed and Costello on "Perfect Day" is kind of rough, but both subjects wind their way around to a few revealing anecdotes, and Reed and Costello's climactic duet on the fairly obscure Reed song "Set The Twilight Reeling" is flat-out amazing. The Clinton episode is far more fluid, with the ex-president speaking knowledgeably about jazz saxophone and making some compelling comparisons between music and political speeches. The Bennett episode serves up a charming 50 minutes of anecdotes, peppered with heartfelt appreciations of the veteran crooner's favorite songwriters and musicians, and punctuated by some winning, low-key performances. Each episode is pretty different; all are rewarding.

-For the record, here are the rest of Costello's upcoming guests: James Taylor (12/24); The Police (1/7); Rufus Wainwright (1/14); Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, Norah Jones and John Mellencamp (1/21), Renée Fleming (1/28); Herbie Hancock (2/4); She & Him, Jenny Lewis and Jakob Dylan (2/11); Diana Krall (2/18); and Smokey Robinson (2/25).

-Spectacle is shot in front of a live audience, which doesn't really add much. If anything, I think the spectators may make the interviewees more self-conscious, as well as giving the editors pointless crowd shots to cut to. I can see the advantage when it comes to the live performances, and it's possible that being aware of an audience keeps the answers more on-point, but while watching Spectactle, I kept thinking about another Elvis-led interview show: TCM's Under The Influence, hosted by critic Elvis Mitchell. I'm not sure that Mitchell is all that great as an interviewer, but somehow, with the most innocuous questions, he gets thoughtful answers about influences and favorites from the likes of Bill Murray, Ed Norton and Joan Allen… perhaps because they're speaking to him alone, and not a bunch of onlookers. For interview quality, I prefer Under The Influence, but for overall entertainment value, Costello has the edge.

-Elvis Costello is an ugly, ugly man.

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