Elvis Costello first made his mark in the 1970s with songs of acidic wit and melodic sneer, so it’s no surprise that he approached a new career venture as a talk-show host with something less than sunny optimism.
“There was no provable reason to think that it would succeed,” Costello said of “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With...,” the 13-part series that aired on Sundance to rave reviews for its mix of music and conversation as well as its archival sensibility. “I had some experience doing this sort of thing, a talk show that is, but, really, you never know if it’s going to actually work out until you go and do it in front of an audience and a camera.”
The previous experience that Costello mentioned was some notable substitute duty for David Letterman in which he proved to be a nimble host for the celebrity couch. But “Spectacle,” a contender in the Emmy variety, music or comedy series category, is far different in tempo and temperament than the all-too-familiar talk shows on late-night network television.
“We didn’t want to do a show where people came on and talked about their new album and everything was done in service of that guest promoting their new thing,” Costello said. “This was always meant to be a show about the music with a sense of history.”
Costello performs with his guests too, among them the Police, Tony Bennett, Lou Reed, Kris Kristofferson and Norah Jones during the first 13 shows. (The show has been renewed for a second season and the inaugural season is headed to a home video release at some point.)
The structure of the show varies according to guest -- a huge departure from the conventional rigidity of the talk sector -- and there is no time spent on gossip topics.
That’s not to say there’s no personal revelation. Music discussion took Rufus Wainwright into candid reflections on his difficult youth and Smokey Robinson’s musings about his 1960s recordings led to a poignant tangent on his memories of the civil rights era.
“That was my absolute favorite,” Costello said of speaking and singing with his childhood hero Robinson. “That’s a career highlight for me, quite honestly.”
The show is the brainchild of executive producers Elton John, who has been a guest twice, and David Furnish, his business and life partner. John said the show quickly found its rhythms and that Costello is the ideal host with his staggering knowledge of music and his sly humor.
“Elvis is the only person who could have done this, I really believe that, because he is such a fan of music,” John said. “He said he would only do it if the guests are top-notch, no fodder. He did the first one with me which was essential because we’re big friends and know each other well and I could put him at ease. Then he went right from me to President Clinton, Tony Bennett and Lou Reed. He’s really grown into it too.”
Clinton and Julian Schnabel have been some of the unexpected bookings, with the former White House resident talking about the influence of music on his life path and Schnabel joining in the conversation on the show focused on Reed, who the artist and filmmaker has collaborated with in the past. On that episode, Schnabel gave a spoken-word recitation, another change-up for a show that even varies the size and shape of its taping venue.
John said that many of his veteran peers in the music business no longer listen to new music at all, preferring to delve deeper into the past they already know. Not Costello, he said, who is insatiable in his quest for new music, which is why the show will also look forward, as it did with appearances by relative newcomers She & Him and Jenny Lewis.
“We wanted to make something that was totally about music and we didn’t feel there was anything on television that was like that,” John said. “We feel stunned at the reception and we feel really vindicated that we made the right program. You always take the risk and hope there’s an audience, but it’s wonderful to have a success with something that is high quality and only to do with music, without the gossip and superficial personal stuff.”
John already has a wish list for the future.
“There are obvious ones, like Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney,” John said. “I would love to get Randy Newman on there as well. I think he’s extraordinary, one of the true American heritage writers. Bob Dylan, of course, we would love, but he just doesn’t do TV. And Prince, who I think is the most interesting person today as far as live performance goes. And Elvis Costello, we’re going to have him on. I’m going to host that one.”