Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Emotional Spectacle

If you love songwriters, then you're undoubtedly pleased to know that Elvis Costello's Spectacle has been renewed and is currently airing On Demand and on the Sundance Channel. Last season had some wonderful moments--most memorable for me were his interviews with Tony Bennett and Rufus Wainwright.

This season is two episodes in (of 7), and already it's hit a peak for me. It occurred in a songwriter's showcase featuring Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, Ron Sexsmith, and Jesse Winchester.

I have loved Jesse Winchester since his debut album in 1970. Costello referred to that release as being equal in stature and achievement to other great albums of the time, such as James Taylor's Sweet Baby James and Neil Young's After the Gold Rush. Ah, Elvis! That statement alone endeared you to me (along with last season's confession that he is a monstrous Bing Crosby fan).

He asked Jesse what went into his decision to flee to Canada to avoid the draft at that time. Jesse admitted that it was a decision made by a young man and, if he had to make it now, he would at least give it deeper thought. Then it was on to the music.

Ron Sexsmith, a round-faced mopheaded Canadian, played "Secret Heart", a song of his that he said resignedly many people confuse as being written by Feist (since she had the hit with it--ah, the damned obscurity of the true talent!). Lovely song, delivered with Sexsmith's signature sweet tenor. (Later he was to duet with Elvis on "Everyday I Write the Book", a song the latter thanked Sexsmith for reviving his interest in.)

Sheryl Crow was seated next to Sexsmith. She was all teeth and bare arms. Don't get me wrong--I think she looks fabulous, and I do enjoy her music. It just doesn't stick in my ear, and the one time that I heard her live I was singularly unimpressed at her stagecraft. (Standing stone still through most of the show and not interacting much with the audience will not win this coffeehouse/nightclub frequenter's affections.) She sang "If It Makes You Happy". I enjoyed her admitting before singing that it's often the songs you like the least as a songwriter that turn out to be the hits!

Neko Case, the youngest songwriter among the five in the circle, was next. She won me over immediately by discussing her deep love of Harry Nilsson. She followed by singing "Don't Forget Me", a lovely ballad that features his strange and bewitching mixture of sweetness and sarcasm.

Then Jesse Winchester was up. Clearly the elder in this group, he was re-introduced by Costello, who mentioned how he was a big fan and adored Winchester's new release, Love's Filling Station. Jesse followed by playing "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Dong" from that CD. The title refers to a song that lovers recall from their youth.

When we danced was not a dance but more a long embrace
We held on to each other and we floated there in space
and I was shy to kiss you while the whole wide world could see
So "Sham-a-Ling" said everything for me

And all the poor old folks they thought that we'd lost our minds
They could not make heads or tails of the young folks' funny rhymes
But you and I knew all the words and we always sang along
to old "Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding, Sham-a-Ling-Dang-Dong"

One of the wonderful things about Spectacle is, well, the spectacle of watching people--especially songwriters--listen. I love how they hunch over their guitars, letting the lyrics pour in and move them. To me, it's as intimate as television can be and with Jesse Winchester, who sings sweetly of kisses and faded youth, that is very intimate indeed.

A close-up caught Neko Case crying while listening to the song, and that sight triggered tears immediately in me. (They come easily--not just because of my faded youth, but my perpetual sleep-deprivation!)

Anyway, Jesse's song proceeds to cover the long course of his subjects' love, and how he bets that the old folks had their own "Sham-a-Ling" moment in their youth. Then he ends by summarizing the sentiment.

All those sweet old love songs
oh, every word rings true
"Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding" means "sweetheart"
"Sham-a-Ling-Dang-Dong" does too
It means that right here in my arms
well, that's where you belong
and it means "Sham-a-ling-dong-ding,

It's a remarkable song from an album that merits wide attention. I hope that Costello's support of Jesse Winchester brings it.

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