SPECTACLE REPORT: Elvis Costello's Must-Hear Songs by John Prine, Lyle Lovett, and Ray LaMontagne
Elvis Costello and Lyle Lovett.
Some people imagine I have a head start with my SPECTACLE encounters simply because my guests and I share an occupation.
However, the location of the specific common ground has often been unusual or obscure.
For example, Lyle Lovett and I both contributed to Robert Altman’s motion picture, SHORT CUTS.
I wrote the song “Punishing Kiss” for Annie Ross to perform, while Lyle, rather more crucially, was featured as a sinister confectioner. So, there was not much cause for dialogue, other than to remark upon this coincidence.
When I started my career, my unfortunate face and manner of speaking, which has often been mistaken for insolent at international borders, had me frequently described as “aggressive” or – perish the thought – “surly.”
In truth, I foolishly imagined that my songs might flourish while I remained out of the spotlight, but my natural shyness and impatience to get on with my work was often incorrectly decoded.
So while Ray Lamontagne may have found it hard to imagine that SPECTACLE’s M.C. was in anyway reticent, I can appreciate how his own natural reserve could be lazily mistaken for being “difficult.”
All I can say is that throughout our conversation Ray spoke with the same singular clarity and generosity found in his songs.
For all the contrasts between our three guests, one idea stands: they are all singers who have prevailed after initial comparisons to other performers, even when these supposed resemblances were intended to be complimentary.
I’ve always believed that a lot of good songs have been written while unsuccessfully attempting to copy the style of another writer. A lot of pop music is like this; you start out with someone else’s rhythm or voice in your head, and in utterly failing to duplicate it, you find your own.
I’ve admired John Prine’s songs since his first remarkable collection on Atlantic Records. It is hard to think of any debut which contains so many indelible and enduring tunes.
In 1975, I was playing in a band that would have been seriously flattered by the term “semi-professional.” This is why I’ve always referred to the recordings made in my bedroom at that time as “pre-professional.”
Among the many writer’s hats that I imagined I was trying on then, John Prine’s was probably among the most unlikely and ill-fitting. But there were many lessons learned from his juxtaposition of the arcane with the raw and brutal details in a song such as “Sam Stone.”
The impact of those early songs is such that it would be foolish to overlook the riches and variety found in the rest of his catalogue, especially those on John’s own Oh Boy imprint.
“Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone” and “Crooked Piece of Time” – from Bruised Orange (1978)
John’s singing requires very little additional accompaniment and this first poignant song needs no more than a lonely clarinet solo and a distant accordion to spin its tale.
John’s remarkable solo SPECTACLE rendition of “Lake Marie” is a piece of epic storytelling; it may surprise and hopefully delight people more familiar with the full band recording.
“Crooked Piece of Time” is another great example of John fronting the band and illustrating that his wit is matched by his timing.
“Let’s Invite Them Over” – (with Iris Dement) from In Spite Of Ourselves
It seems extraordinary to recommend a “cover” by such wonderful songwriter, but I trust that, if you don’t already know Prine’s songs, you are probably going to want to hear them all after hearing “Lake Marie,” so I will offer up this mischievous duet with the great Iris Dement on the George Jones/Melba Montgomery swinging classic.
Mutual friends have found it odd that Lyle and I had never been properly introduced.
I had glimpsed him only once, though a half-open hotel room door, when seeking my pal, T Bone Burnett, who happened to be staying in an adjacent suite.
This was a coincidence that I unsuccessfully attempted to spin into a surreal shaggy dog story in my SPECTACLE introduction.
I imagined the establishment as “The Texas Songwriter Hotel” with likes Steve Earle and Guy Clark lurking behind the numbers along the corridor.
This was just my way of giving my guest a moment of respite after two very intense solo performances, but it contained some sense among the nonsense, as Lyle’s connection to the rich traditions of Texas songwriting became the central focus of our all too brief conversation.
“The Road To Ensenada” – from The Road To Ensenada (1996)
When Lyle spoke of the great Townes Van Zandt, he summoned a broader picture than that of the doomed and tragic figure often found in other accounts of the songwriter.
This song is among my favorite from Lyle’s catalogue, and one which seems to contain new, elegant echoes of Townes’ writing style.
“Natural Forces” – from Natural Forces (2009)
Given the time between recording and broadcasting the SPECTACLE episodes, the show has never been ideal as far as spotlighting new material in the manner of nightly entertainments. But I could not have been more impressed by this very powerful song about a man questioning his own worth – which just happens to be the title track Lyle’s latest recording.
“Jolene” from Live at Bonnaroo (2005)
Like many people I first heard Ray’s voice and songwriting through “Jolene,” from the album Trouble. That song still kills me, and Ray was good enough to sing it on SPECTACLE. Like many of his songs, it sounds ageless and new, seemingly familiar and yet original.
It is admirable how Ray has been able to reach larger and larger audiences without distorting his songs’ essential musical and emotional values. Here’s how to do it in the Big Top.
“Winterbirds” – from Gossip In The Grain (2008)
People who imagine Ray Lamontagne to be cast entirely as a gentle voiced troubadour might be startled by his SPECTACLE rendition of “Henry Nearly Killed Me.”
We agreed to perform this song with just Ray on harp, Jay Bellerose’s drum set, and my Gibson Super 400 guitar acting as a kind of baritone voice.
Like a lot of great R&B songs, “Henry” never departs from one chord, so as Ray’s performance increased in intensity during rehearsals, I kicked in various fuzz-tones, wah-wahs and tremolo devices until every pedal was flat to the floor and my amp was humming like a demented hovercraft. It was at this point that the racket I was making received the nod of approval from Mr. L.
What I like about Ray’s latest album is the way in which the songwriting range has increased while a vivid artistic identity has been preserved.
The album contains the second great song entitled “Let It Be Me,” which boasts the abandon of “Henry,” the humor of “Meg White” and the beautiful and unexpected harmonic extensions in the chorus of “Winterbirds.”
The songs and influence of Townes Van Zandt seemed to run like a thread through this edition of SPECTACLE. Both John Prine and Lyle Lovett have recorded Townes’ “Loretta,” and it turned out to be a favorite of Ray LaMontagne’s as well. I was happy to join them on this song, and on Prine’s great number, “Angel From Montgomery.”
Sadly, there was only time in the show for one of these pieces to be included. It was a very tough call, but in the end we went with “Loretta.” Hopefully, you’ll see this version of “Angel” on release some day. And in case you care to know the title of my favorite Townes Van Zandt song, it would be “Sad Cinderella.”