Upping the ante on any TV show that got off to as auspicious a start as the first season of the Sundance Channel’s music interview-performance series “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…” is a tall order.
After all, the first episode featured a conversation with Elton John -- not coincidentally, one of the executive producers and a key mover behind the series -- before pairing its deeply knowledgeable, erudite and witty host with subsequent guests, including Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Lou Reed, Norah Jones, Rufus Wainwright, Renée Fleming and former President Clinton.
FOR THE RECORD:
Elvis Costello: A review in Wednesday’s Calendar of the Sundance Channel’s “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With . . . " series referred to the site of the second season’s opening episode with U2 as Harlem’s Apollo Theater. That episode, and one other, was taped at the Masonic Temple in Toronto, Canada. The remaining episodes are set at the Apollo. —
But out of the gate on tonight’s second-season opener, Costello does impressively ratchet things up in a wide-ranging session with U2 singer Bono and guitarist the Edge.
Next week’s episode is a singer-songwriter round table with Sheryl Crow topping the invite list to help draw viewers in to the charms of Neko Case, Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Winchester.
Even more than the interview with a former U.S. president, the U2 show is the first in which the guest upstages Costello. Walking out from backstage as Costello and the Imposters are playing “Mysterious Ways,” Bono eyes the crowd, quickly lifts his arms twice and instantly the audience inside Harlem’s Apollo Theater is on its feet.
Bono openly discusses the band’s early naiveté, which led it to soak up all it could working with producers such as Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
“We had no history of musicianship,” Bono says. “Remember, we formed a band before we could play. . . . It’s kind of comedic. We’re looking at all these [more experienced] people, going, ‘OK, we’ll have that and we’ll have that and we’ll have that,’ like you’re walking around with a shopping bag. But somebody else said, ‘You also need the talent bit.’ And it never dawned on us that we mightn’t have any.”
The other compelling part of “Spectacle” is when Costello joins his guests on the bandstand in songs chosen not to plug their latest record but to illustrate their art.
The guitar pull show does such a great job showcasing the music of criminally underexposed, Memphis-bred singer-songwriter Winchester that you wish they’d devoted a whole episode to him.
Since his 1970 debut album, Winchester has consistently written and recorded songs of such melodic beauty, lyric gentility and vulnerability as to take your breath away.
On “Spectacle,” he serves up “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding,” reducing Case to tears with this meditation on music’s ineffable power to channel love across the decades.
It’s the kind of moment, Elton John told The Times last year, for which “Spectacle” was created: a forum for monstrously talented musicians who, for whatever reasons, have been overlooked by the masses.
As the second season will demonstrate, it’s also about sharing Costello’s insider contact with several acts the public has embraced.
Coming later this season: Costello assembles a dream band with Nick Lowe, Allen Toussaint and Levon Helm and a two-part season closer with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.