TCA Press Tour, Day 3: Sundance Channel

So here’s the thing about the Sundance Channel’s presentations: there were two of them…and I cared a lot more about one of them than I did the other. I mean, I actually felt bad for the first panel, “Architectural School,” because I don’t think I took in a single word that was uttered while it was going on. I was pretty much exclusively focused on repeating the same mantra over and over again:

Elvis Costello is next, Elvis Costello is next, Elvis Costello is next, Elvis Costello is next, Elvis Costello is next…

I know: it’s rude, and I’m sorry. But in an act of apology, I should say that, unlike most of the programs I’ve been talking about thus far, I actually did have a chance to screen the first two episodes of “Architecture School,” and I even wrote about them after viewing them.

The first thing that strikes you about this series, which focuses on fourth-year students at Tulane University’s School of Architecture as they design and build an affordable house to be sold to a needy New Orleans homebuyer, is that, finally, the TV spotlight has been put on some young adults who should be spotlighted. You’d never find a show like this on a network that actually caters to the youth of today, of course, but you can at least hope that the cool kids find it. But while “Architecture School” is extremely interesting on an intellectual level as each of the students work out their visions (watching one of them try to pitch the validity of a 3-story house in the middle of Nawlins is pretty funny), it would be overstating things to suggest that it’s truly enthralling. God forbid they should dumb it down in the slightest, but here’s hoping the series begins to move a bit more quickly as the students get out of the classroom and into the actual building process.

So there you go. Not necessarily a rave, but there’s some praise there, at least. Now I feel a little bit better about being completely out of it during the show’s panel…and now we can go ahead and talk about “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…”

Maybe I should clarify why I was so excited about this panel.

As if it isn’t already terribly evident, I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan, but in addition to just being excited about having the opportunity to ask Elvis questions about his new music-oriented talk show (think “Inside the Musician’s Studio”) during the panel, I viewed this as my big chance to score redemption for something that happened way on June 16, 1991. If you know me, you’ve already heard this story a thousand times, but you also probably laugh at my stupidity every time, too, so I’m sure it’s not that tortuous for you to hear it again, so here it is once more…

I got backstage to meet Elvis Costello after his performance on the Mighty Like A Rose tour, and at this early point in my career, I’d never been backstage before, so I was a little nervous. He comes out to greet those of us in the backstage area, and someone says, “Hey, Elvis, that was a great show.” He modestly says, “Thanks. Thanks a lot. It was a little bit hot, though. I probably should’ve taken off my jacket.” Having been paying no attention to what he’s just said, I choose this moment to praise him by saying, “You’re a genius.” Within the context, it sounds suspiciously like I’m saying, “Nice work on not taking off your jacket, dumbass.” He chooses to move on to another group of fans. I hang my head in shame.

Fast-forward to today. My fellow Bullz-Eye editor, David Medsker, has already forewarned me that if the words “you’re a genius” emerge from my lips this time, I’m fired. I don’t blame him for saying this, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 17 years, it’s to know when to open your mouth and when not to open your mouth…or, in other words, if I’m going to say anything at all, it won’t be something stupid, but there’s some question if I’m going to take the risk at all. I try to score a one-on-one interview with Elvis, so that I can perhaps get his impressions on my selections for our upcoming “Deep Cuts” feature on his back catalog, but that falls flat when I learn that he’s not really doing any one-on-one interview this go-round. (I did throw my business card into the ring for consideration for a future phoner, but even if ends up coming to pass, it won’t happen ’til closer the show’s premiere date, anyway.) I decide that, if nothing else, I’ll ask a question during the panel…and, to my credit, I succeed in doing so without so much as a stammer.

Me: Elvis, do you have a kind of a wish list of guests who you want to have on the show and, if so, are they more mainstream or obscure?
Elvis: Well, I described the process to one of the people that we were currently trying to schedule as similar to vaudevillian plate spinning, particularly if you’re talking about a collaboration. As you see in the opening clip, I’m singing “Border Song” with the Imposters’ rhythm section and James Burton on guitar, who played with Elvis Presley. In the background, there was Allen Toussaint, who sings a second verse of the song. Now, on a number of the shows, we have musical guests supporting the conversation. Every show begins with a performance which is either a song by the artist or in reference to the artist. And then, if the conversation leads that way, we hope that the subject… (Elvis’s cell phone suddenly causes interference on the speakers)…and here they are calling now! But you can imagine in trying to book these things — and these gentlemen will back me up on this, I’m sure — that it can be a process where you get somebody in place, and then somebody else isn’t available. So it’s one thing to have a wish list. It’s another thing to make it a reality. And the window of opportunity where studio facilities are available, where I’m not on tour, where the people that we want to speak to are not on tour or not making a film or not about to launch themselves off in a rocket ship…it’s a little bit tricky, you know?

I was, as you can imagine, quite happy with the answer I received, and there’s more to the story of my redemption, but there’s also more great stuff to tackle from the panel, so I’ll save my bit to the end…which is only appropriate, since the remainder of my tale didn’t occur ’til post-panel, anyway.

If you’re unaware of Elvis’s history as a chat show presenter, he actually served as a guest host on “The Late Show with David Letterman” when our man Dave was in recovery from his heart surgery a few years back. It wasn’t a lengthy stint – it was a one-night gig – but he nonetheless managed to learn a valuable lesson: “You shouldn’t take too much for granted in having any prior knowledge of the preson. I’d never met Kim Cattrall before, and she came on largely in a version of her character from ‘Sex and the City’ and flirted, and it was very funny. I had met Eddie Izzard a few times, and I maybe made too many assumptions that that would get us through the interview…and, in fact, I felt that I could have done better.”

Even with that educational experience under his belt, however, he’s not going in with any delusions of having conquered the medium. “I’m not a professional presenter,” he admitted. “I’m hoping I’m managing to be reasonably coherent. The help that I have in shaping the scripts, you know, I try to write the questions. And then we sit in a room, Steven (Warden, producer) and Bill Flannigan and Alex Collettim, who are working on the team, and we sit in a very confined space and try and hone the questions down to a card that I can glance at and make it seem as if that idea just popped into my head. But I’m not practiced at reading audio cue. I’m not going to suddenly become a highly polished presenter in that way. And I hope that people will not find that a negative but, rather, that it’s real. The conversation is real. And at times we’ve had some very surprising exchanges, and I think that not knowing all about somebody gives me the opportunity to find out during the conversation. What I don’t really want to do is fake enthusiasm for people. That’s not the kind of show it is.”

And what kind of show is it? Well, the best way to answer that is to let Elvis describe an upcoming episode which featured President Clinton as his guest, which gives you a really great idea of the musical talent that’s going to turning up on a regular basis.

“The episode began with a performance of ‘Mystery Train,’ by Elvis Presley,” said Elvis. “We thought that was a good way of introducing the President to the stage because, as you know, his nickname in the White House was Elvis. We had James Burton, who played with Elvis Presley, playing along on electric guitar. The conversation inevitably was more reflective, and at the end, as the President is a fan of jazz, we had scheduled a performance of ‘Abide With Me,’ by Hank Jones and Charlie Hayden, from a wonderful collaboration that they made a number of years ago. Now, Hank is in his 90th year now, and, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to join us at very short notice. Pat Metheny stepped in at two hours’ notice and provided us with a very beautiful totally spontaneous finale for that show. And that’s the kind of unexpected thing. In addition, in a conversation with Charlie Hayden, who began playing in his parent’s hillbilly band, we mentioned a shared love of Hank Williams. And we closed the show with a Hank Williams number with Charlie Hayden, Pat Matheny, James Burton and myself.”

In other words, you don’t necessarily have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy “Spectacle.” You just have to be a music fan.

Okay, now I’ll tell you what went down after things wrapped up. Elvis stepped down from the stage and took center court for a few minutes as he was surrounded by several critics, including myself. I didn’t get to ask a question at this point, unfortunately, because I couldn’t even get my tape recorder near him (though one of my thoughtful peers kindly offered to hold my recorder, however, so expect a transcription of highlights from that to appear in the near future), but as he stood up to leave, I managed to snare a hearty handshake and make a successful request for a photo…which appears below.

A question in the panel, a hearty handshake, and a photograph…and, with that, I strolled away whistling “Redemption Song,” with my memories of 1991 having never felt so far away.

  

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