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Alix Pearlstein's Goldrush (production still) (2008).

the early word

So, How Is Elvis Costello’s Variety Show?

A few years back, John Lydon blew what remained of his Sex Pistols reputation by appearing on the Anglo version of Big Brother. Then again, the former Johnny Rotten’s favorite line was "Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?" Elvis Costello has no excuse, which made Tuesday night’s taping at the Apollo of Spectacle, his new Sundance Channel variety show all the more baffling. The evening was much like the Seinfeld episode where Kramer installs the old Merv Griffin set in his apartment, but without the laughs. The festivities began with a stage manager asking the audience to provide some canned "applause" and then "medium applause." Costello then emerged all in black with a flowing scarf in a getup that was Quentin Crisp meets Little Dorrit era Dickens. Costello’s guests included Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward, Jenny Lewis, and Jakob Dylan. Individually, they all have their charms, but seated together on the stage of the Apollo, just a few feet from where James Brown lay in repose, they jointly made up a musical version of The Whitest Kids U' Know.

There was something infinitely sad and dispiriting as Elvis read strangely Dadaist questions off a TelePrompTer. Card 21 just said "Bach. Brian Wilson." It was followed by "The inhibition of indie rock vs. pop music." Poor Elvis was out of his element, asking M. Ward how he related to Deschanel and Lewis since they're both from L.A. and Ward isn't. "Matt’s from Ventura County," corrected Lewis. Costello sighed and said, "Someone is going to have to shoot the researcher."

You had to wonder who talked him into this. Toward the end of the taping, show handlers were forced to move up audience members to replace the faithful that fled halfway through the evening. Lewis and Deschanel eventually returned to sing backing vocals on a couple of Costello standards. "The only way this night can be saved is if they start making out," said a disappointed fan. Alas, it never happened. Costello brought Dylan back out, and the evening finally went off the cue cards. Jakob told a story about Joe Strummer giving him his vest after a show on the Combat Rock tour and his mom unwittingly donating it to the Salvation Army. Elvis mentioned the first time he met Dylan’s daddy. Bob uttered, "I've been hearing a lot about you." A starstruck Costello shot back, "I've heard a lot about you."

The all-star combo then did a sublime cover of Strummer’s "Straight to Hell" and finished with an obligatory cover of "Peace Love, and Understanding," that Costello introduced by confessing that Nick Lowe originally wrote the song as a parody of protest music, but times had changed, not for the better. Now, Costello said, it was time to take the words seriously. It was all wonderfully slapdash and real. Costello was left with a lesson he surely learned long ago: You can’t script rock and roll.

Not so great! 

Photo: Getty Images