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Elvis Costello Makes Celebrities Fans Again

First it’s Bob Dylan, who finally decided he wanted to be Wolfman Jack and now hosts Theme Time Radio Hour, a program dedicated to showcasing music by artists, most of whom are long dead and most of us have never heard of. Now along comes Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …, a television interview show that seems bent on showcasing large-name artists (Sir Elton John and James Taylor) and lesser-known ones (Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright) in an intimate interview/performance setting. The twist here is that they aren’t talking about themselves. Instead, they are paying tribute to the music and musicians who influenced them.

Elvis Costello and Elton John make like Billy Stewart.

Elvis Costello and Elton John make like Billy Stewart.

Perhaps it is that I share Dylan and Costello and John’s passion for arcane music and great artists who didn’t qualify for stardom. Given freedom from talking about why they are successful (for which most don’t have a clue, anyway) and prodded by the consummate music lover Costello, musicians talk much like the rest of us do in conversations about them. They’re just fans, too, and for me, that fact is far more interesting than anything about their celebrity or success.

Musically, I had long ago lost track of the former Reggie Dwight, but Costello drew me back into his story as he got John to talk about the period when he was trying to develop his act. John talked at length about performers, especially piano players, who caught his attention back then and from whom he picked up a style of playing that brought him more fame than any of those from which he learned. (He dismissed his own success as “luck” at one point.)

John used the piano to show how Laura Nyro’s talent for wandering off the traditional verse/chorus/middle eight/verse/chorus format crept into his piano playing and was his biggest influence. His stories about how hearing and seeing Leon Russell, Carole King and the Band shaped his own direction (which he dates to the album Tumbleweed Connection, where he says he found his sound) ring very true to the music itself.

John, a co-producer of Spectacle, seemed genuinely jazzed telling stories of touring with Major Lance, hanging with Patti Labelle and almost freezing onstage when he spotted Russell in the audience while performing “Burn Down the Mission” at the Troubadour in 1970. He did a short phrase of “Sitting in the Park,” the 1965 Billy Stewart single, which Costello quickly joined in before they discussed Stewart, the gifted, 300-pound vocalist who hit the big time by turning George Gershwin’s somber “Summertime” into a sputtering, falsetto soul masterpiece in 1966 and was killed several years later in a car accident (not by a gunshot, as John says).

And they talked about the sway that David Ackles, a piano player and songwriter with Nyro’s penchant for abandoning conventional verse-chorus formats, held on them both in the early 1970s. I, too, was stricken with Ackle’s 1972 American Gothic album back then.

Listening to it again for the first time in many years, I like it even better. Produced by John’s writing partner, Bernie Taupin, American Gothic still sounds wonderfully contemporary. Hearing Costello’s own interpretation of John’s “Border Song” and watching John and Costello close the program by resurrecting Ackles’ “Down River,” with a band that included Allen Toussaint, James Burton and Pete Thomas, transcended the decades.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With … is on the Sundance Channel.


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