Offbeat at the ApolloPrint
Elvis Costello’s cable TV show, Spectacle, ranges across musical genres and centuries
By Wendy Smith
December 1, 2009
He, in a porkpie hat, was promoting a new television series, Spectacle, on the Sundance Channel, and she, costumed by Christian Lacroix, was about to launch the 2008–2009 season of the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Massenet’s Thaïs. No one gave a second thought to the coincidental appearance of Elvis Costello and Renée Fleming images posted on taxi and bus-shelter billboards all around New York City that fall. Later in the season, though, when Fleming turned up as guest on Costello’s show, the juxtaposition of promotions seemed a happy portent. Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . Renée Fleming proved to be a high point of the adventurous series’ first 13 episodes, which ranged across genres and centuries with unabashed erudition and deep affection for many varieties of music.
No one show could be considered typical of this eclectic series recorded in Harlem’s Apollo Theater (the second season was scheduled to begin airing December 9). Costello launched the first season with his friend Elton John, one of Spectacle’s executive producers, as the inaugural guest. On that show, John carried the torch for the singer-songwriter tradition with an impassioned tribute to the late Laura Nyro, whose quirky, personal songs were surprising hits in the 1960s for The 5th Dimension, Three Dog Night, and Barbra Streisand.
In subsequent weeks, The Police performed “Walking on the Moon,” and Sting played the lute while he and Costello crooned an Elizabethan ballad. Lou Reed talked about doo-wop (“a great source of wisdom and inspiration”); Bill Clinton discussed music’s impact on his life and offered his thoughts on hip-hop (“a unique art form: I’d still rather listen to Ray Charles, but I get it”). A Nashville-style “guitar pull” featured Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, John Mellencamp, and Norah Jones singing Johnny Cash’s “Big River.” Costello compared James Taylor to Bing Crosby and prefaced Tony Bennett’s appearance with a performance of “Cold Cold Heart.” “It might seem strange to introduce the greatest living singer of the Great American Songbook with a Hank Williams tune,” he noted before bringing on Bennett, “But, you know, I always thought Hank was in the Great American Songbook, right there after James Van Heusen and just before Stevie Wonder in the Ws.” Placing a country music legend between the composer of “Come Fly with Me” and the Motown prodigy/presidential troubadour comes naturally to Costello, whose reverence for American popular music is matched by his assumption that you don’t need to check your brain at the door to enter its halls—and that you might also love art songs and bebop.
So it made sense to build an episode around Fleming, the all-American opera star who also sings jazz and Broadway show tunes. Costello opened, as usual, with a song somehow linked to his guest, in this case, his own “All This Useless Beauty.” His ironic tip of the hat to Fleming’s primary art form was entirely intentional. “The crimes committed in the opera house are many and gruesome to behold,” he deadpanned in a characteristically witty introduction. “Regicide, infanticide, and all the other forms of homicide are perpetrated nightly before the footlights. The threat of eternal damnation and darkness, more profound here than at any death metal concert.” Offbeat juxtapositions are routine on Spectacle, designed to make the point that all music springs from the same human impulses and should be taken both seriously and lightly. Fleming matched her host in down-to-earth enthusiasm for highfalutin material. She sang “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca, joking that “before any heinous act in opera there’s a beautiful aria,” and noted that Enrico Caruso and his peers were the pop idols of their day: “The division of genres comes later.” But she wasn’t trying to sell Opera Lite; she spoke at length and in detail—another exemplary feature of the program—about her vocal training, the pleasures of choosing repertoire from 400 years of music, and her conviction that opera singers must be able to act, “to communicate the text to the audience.”
The acid test of whether or not you are a true Spectacle fan came with the entrance of Rufus Wainwright, who had taped a separate guest stint just before Fleming. The son of singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus performs his own intensely personal songs and at the time Spectacle was recorded had just composed an opera. He and Fleming traded compliments (there’s a fair amount of this on the show) and agreed that French was their favorite foreign language to sing in; to illustrate, Wainwright gave a keening, soulful rendition of “L’Absence,” from a Berlioz song cycle. Judging by an irritable post on the Sundance Web site, some people found this unbearably pretentious. Another viewer, however, wrote that he liked having his horizons expanded: “All the boundaries are blurred—it’s like music comes from one place no matter what style.”
Fleming, who obviously believes this, sang the Nat King Cole hit “Answer Me, My Love” after cogently analyzing the different voices required for different genres. She loves Appalachian folk music, she explained when folk musician Kate McGarrigle (Rufus Wainwright’s mother) joined the group, because “there’s no artifice in the singing, while opera singing is totally manufactured, and then we try to learn to be simple.” Seated on four stools across the front of the stage, the quartet performed “In the Pines,” a traditional Appalachian song that’s been interpreted by everyone from bluegrass master Bill Monroe to Nirvana. McGarrigle’s scratchy twang and Costello’s reedy tenor better suited this straightforward folk version than Fleming’s polished soprano or Wainwright’s bell-like tenor, but one of the show’s charms is the willingness of guests and host alike to throw themselves into music outside their specialties.
Roaming among opera, French classical song, pop balladry, and traditional folk, the Fleming-headlined program deepened the sense of musical history that makes Spectacle so unusual and rewarding. Previous episodes had focused on the 20th century’s rich array of styles, with some modestly kick-ass rock ’n’ roll (Costello and The Police wailing through “Sunshine of Your Love”), a dollop of the Great American Songbook (Bennett doing Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer), and vintage singer-songwriter material (Taylor performing “Sweet Baby James”). The season’s closing installments branched out further. Costello finally got a few under-40 guests when he rounded up She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward), Jenny Lewis, and Jakob Dylan for a group show that stressed these four artists’ links to earlier generations of country, pop, and folk musicians. Herbie Hancock talked about his years with the Miles Davis Quintet, the impact of his classical training on his jazz piano playing, and his category-obliterating 1983 hit “Rockit,” one of the first mainstream records to feature hip-hop scratching. Smokey Robinson recalled the glory days of Motown and sketched the history of the Apollo Theater in anecdotes that made vivid the extraordinary accomplishments of African-American music.
Hancock’s and Robinson’s appearances were especially welcome, since to date Spectacle has not showcased as many African-American artists as you might expect on a program primarily, though not exclusively, devoted to popular music of the past hundred years. Mind you, there haven’t been any death metal bands, or polka bands, or reggae bands, or world-pop singers, or even—somewhat surprisingly, in light of Costello’s beginnings in punk—any really loud rock ’n’ roll. Spectacle is a personal show, reflecting the tastes and interests (and age) of its host. Given Costello’s penchant for articulate, knowledgeable people grounded in historically significant genres, I would hope for Stax songwriter David Porter on Southern soul, or George Clinton on funk, or B. B. King on the blues, or Chuck D to get the program at least a little way into the hip-hop era. It’s probably unrealistic to hope Costello can persuade Aretha Franklin to come talk about her roots in gospel—but, hey, he landed Bono and Bruce Springsteen for the second season, so why not?
Broadening its reach would give Spectacle more opportunities to forge the connections that make the show so stimulating. The first season reminded us that punk rock had a reggae flavor, that Tony Bennett had one of his biggest hits with a country song (“Cold Cold Heart”), that folk music and opera tell similar stark stories of betrayal and death, that the giants of jazz played Tin Pan Alley tunes, that the Velvet Underground was inspired by Beat literature and doo-wop’s street-corner symphonies. The program takes a hip attitude toward high culture and a respectful one toward popular art; in fact, it refuses to see them as different. Elton John set the tone in the first show, as he spoke not only of his admiration for Nyro but also of other rule breakers of the late 1960s and early ’70s—the singer-songwriters who drew on folk, country, rhythm and blues, gospel, and any other kind of music that moved them to craft intimate, unconventional songs that sometimes even got played on Top 40 radio stations. “I want to eulogize these people,” John said, “because if you don’t know who they are, you’ve got to go and discover them. They’re just brilliant; they’re like going into an old church in Venice and seeing wonderful Veronese paintings.”
Since Costello is so meticulous and generous about acknowledging precursors, I’m surprised that thus far he’s made no mention of The Johnny Cash Show, which ran on ABC from June 1969 to March 1971. Like Costello, Cash was steeped in musical history. His mother-in-law, Maybelle Carter, made recordings with the Carter Family that in 1927 gave birth to modern country music. Mother Maybelle’s innovative picking style galvanized generations of guitarists, and Cash’s program featured her playing and singing old favorites like “Wildwood Flower.” Cash claimed folk music as a living tradition, singing “The Long Black Veil” with 25-year-old Joni Mitchell and “I Never Will Marry” with 22-year-old Linda Ronstadt. He talked about the history of banjos with Pete Seeger, who played a fretless banjo Cash had given him. In addition to performing his own songs, often with wife June Carter, Cash sang gospel (over ABC’s objections) and did a weekly prerecorded tour of the American past; one segment blended “America the Beautiful” with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
The Johnny Cash Show made the same sorts of connections that enrich Spectacle. Cash played “Blue Yodel #9” with Louis Armstrong and noted that the trumpet player had recorded the song with Jimmie Rodgers, “The Father of Country Music,” in 1930. They had both been in Hollywood, Armstrong explained, and one morning his friend Jimmie said, “I feel like singing some blues.” Cash introduced Derek and the Dominos singing “It’s Too Late” (by rhythm-and-blues star Chuck Willis), then chatted with Eric Clapton about how much British rock musicians admired American country guitar pickers. “One of the best of them all is right here on the show, and we should bring him on,” said Clapton, and out came Carl Perkins from the house band to play a rollicking version of his song “Matchbox” with the Brits. Cash thanked Ray Charles “for taking country music around the world”—after inventing soul music in the 1950s, Charles reinvented country with the best-selling 1962 album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” Then Cash grinned with delight as Brother Ray performed a blistering rendition of “Ring of Fire.”
Cash also did something Costello hasn’t: he had guests performing current hits. Tammy Wynette sang “Stand By Your Man”; Credence Clearwater Revival played “Bad Moon Rising.” George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Joe Tex, O. C. Smith, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, to name a few, were in the thick of their careers, as was Cash himself. Because it was broadcast on network television, The Johnny Cash Show necessarily aimed to engage a mainstream audience; Spectacle, on a cable channel, has a slightly cultish air.
Costello has declared that he feels “no compulsion to talk about the new product, the thing that’s coming out next week,” and his disinclination to be part of the music industry’s marketing machine is admirable. But Cash managed to do many of the things Costello does so well and also throw himself into the contemporary fray. He had to fight fierce battles with ABC to invite the blacklisted Pete Seeger and to sing the word stoned in Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” He didn’t pander to his live audience at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, a crowd unaccustomed to seeing longhairs in hippie regalia or soul-music dynamos onstage.
Spectacle has yet to venture beyond its own audience’s rather different comfort zone. When the initial tapings for the second season were announced in September, it was good to know that New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint, at the piano but in the background during season one, would get the full-scale guest treatment. And I was pleased to see the names of Jesse Winchester, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Richard Thompson, and Nick Lowe, all critically esteemed singers and songwriters who share Costello’s zest for rhythm and blues, old-time rock ’n’ roll, folk, and country. I was a little disappointed that the younger guests (Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, Ron Sexsmith, Ray Lamontagne) were also in the same folk/rock/alt-country vein. Springsteen and Bono are much bigger names, of course, and vital presences in mainstream musical culture. Still, these are all artists of ultra-obvious appeal to the baby boomer crowd at Spectacle tapings. Watching the electrifying performances on this year’s MTV Awards, which aired the week before Spectacle began taping, I thought: Why doesn’t Costello invite Beyoncé to talk about Tina Turner’s influence on her music? How about Green Day discussing American Idiot, their 2004 album (recently staged as an opera) that took punk rock into the 21st century? Or even Kanye West—he’s got the time, now that his tour has been canceled after he was spectacularly rude to Taylor Swift.
Okay, maybe the volatile West would be taking things a little far. And yes, I know that Beyoncé and Green Day get plenty of media exposure already, and I applaud Spectacle for calling to our attention musicians of merit who aren’t mega-sellers. But it shouldn’t be exclusively a retreat for singer-songwriters. Costello, who joked on one episode that he wanted to see Iggy Pop do standards stripped to the waist in see-through trousers, would also have fun with more flamboyant performers. I don’t think that when Elton John told The New York Times, “I just wanted to make a deeply intelligent set of programs that, in years to come, people can look back on as a historical reference,” he meant to suggest that he was producing a history program. Spectacle has ranged with wit and grace through so many eras of our musical past; I’d love to see the same care devoted to performers with something to say who make contemporary music of mass appeal. A show with such expansive instincts should keep on moving into new territory.
Wendy Smith is the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940, which was recently reissued in paperback and as an ebook.
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