16 December 2009

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . [Season 2, Episode 1]

With the opening episode of the second season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . ., it has become clear that the series has become an important contribution to the study of the art of rock and roll. The format is unique in that Costello adeptly focuses on musical backgrounds and influences of his guests, not bothering with the celebrity fluff. And the opportunity arises for performances of songs in an intimate setting (in this case, the Masonic Temple in Toronto) .

Costello and his band, The Imposters, usually kick off the show with a cover of a tune made famous by his guest(s), which then leads to a carnival barker-type introduction, revving the crowd up for the episode. In this case, the denizens lucky enough to fill the small auditorium didn't need much coaxing: the stars of this show were the lead vocalist and guitarist of the biggest band in the world, U2.

Entering to a bombastic version of "Mysterious Ways," Bono and The Edge shimmied across the stage and then sat on bar stools to settle in for their talk with Costello. The host - in this case as with a number of guests so far in the series - has the unique advantage of sharing the same time line in a parallel musical career. He recalled U2 being on the undercard with Elvis Costello and The Attractions 30 years ago and - even though he concedes that "I Will Follows" sounded like nothing else on the scene - wonders aloud to the two whether they knew "what the hell you were doing" musically at the time. The Dubliners candidly admit that their popularity occurred in a "backwards" fashion, with their initial style coming from minimalist German groups like Can and Neu! And they cite their attendance at an early Costello show as one of the reasons for starting the band. It was only after U2 achieved a measure of popularity that the band began to truly form its musical influences and expand its skills from a technical standpoint. To that end, Bono and The Edge give credit to the "art schooling" they received from long-time producers Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.

This leads into a discussion of the always curious question of: What comes first, the words or the music? According to Bono, the band always starts with the melody. The Edge provides a helpful example of the process in this regard: the underrated gem from Zooropa, "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)." [Listen to this great version of the song from the 1993 ZooTv Tour, performed in Dublin.] He explains that the tune was built up to epic proportions with many overdubs. Then after much toiling and tinkering, it finally struck him that stripping the music to its core of drums, bass and guitar would give the lyrics more punch. The two bandmates then perform a poignant version of the song to confirm this choice in style.

The interview proceeded to touch on encounters with musical heroes, including Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, who urged the boys to look deeply into the roots of American music. But the most charming story related by The Edge and Bono concerned a dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs, California with Frank Sinatra. It proved a jumping off point for the often mentioned, but seldom played, song that U2 wrote specifically for Ol' Blue Eyes, "Two Shots of Whisky, One Shot of Sad."

Dedication to craft rounded out the conversation, with Bono bowing to his partner for his continuing focus on improving his musicianship. While he acknowledges his involvement in many social causes, Bono wonders if it has come at the expense of better songs, better singing. But he believes that these experiences are a valuable jumping off point for many of the lyrics that he has contributed to the band: "When you think of it, we are the perfect band for weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. The happy and the sad." The Edge counters that while practice and editing are crucial, there has to be "chaos within the control" in order to make music that will continue to be relevant.

How rock and roll artists have always fed off each other in order to perpetuate the sound is evident in the closing number of the show. Costello rips into "Pump It Up" (1978), which easily segues into U2's recent "Get On Your Boots" (2009) from No Line On The Horizon. And, in keeping with the theme of musical influence that is the core of Spectacle, the boys double back to Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (1965) for good measure.

"Mysterious Ways" (Elvis Costello & The Imposters)
"Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" (Bono, The Edge and Costello on lead vocals, backed by The Imposters)
"Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" (Bono on lead vocal, The Edge on acoustic guitar)
"Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad" (Bono on lead vocal, Steve Nieve on piano)
"Pump It Up/Get On Your Boots/Subterranean Homesick Blues" (Costello and Bono on lead vocals, backed by The Edge and The Imposters)

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . airs Wednesday nights at 10.00pm EST on Sundance Channel, with some repeats through the week. Check cable or satellite listings.

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