Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Can't Help Falling In Love

A way too long review of the Elvis album "On Stage." Honestly, you could listen to it in less time than it will take to read this. Enjoy anyway!

Visit any music store (if there are any) and check out the Elvis section and you will likely be overwhelmed by your options. Depending on your level of fandom you should be able to satisfy your particular needs. However, if your interest lies in a live performance then it gets a bit dicey. You see one that has all of his best known songs and think it must be the best one. But then here’s another one with a lot of those songs and some others. And here’s yet another one…you get the picture.

Other than this 1970 disc, “On Stage,” every other live set in the rack showcases him at his best and worst all on the same disc. (This was originally titled: “On Stage, February 1970,” but shortened for the expanded CD issue) This one shows him at his best and doesn’t slip into to parody which is always lurking in the next groove with his live recordings. Many have made their living impersonating him over the decades, and he was no exception during his final years on the road. He just made a better living at it than the others.

Looking back it’s hard to believe this one even got released. It’s the lone raw example what he was capable of in a sea of “here we go again” fodder. This would be the only live recording not to lean on his past glories. Instead, in its own way it was celebrating his recent glory and resurrection. Just like anyone currently on the charts he’d had several hits in recent years and was enjoying the accomplishment.

Instead of giving the people what they thought they wanted he gave them what they needed. He reminded them that at thirty five he still had no equal as a singer. His re-emergence as a more soulful vocalist starting in 1968 was now in full stride. At the same time he was trying to balance that with learning to become a performer in an era far removed from the fifties. Taking a big show on the road and trying to be all things to all people would prove to be an exhausting task. It was good to be king, but still hard work. The single name of Elvis on the marquee and the ticket stub meant that all eyes and ears were on him no matter how many people he could fit on stage with him.

Although he didn‘t know it at the time, he was laying the template for the single artist arena shows that would follow. Audience members like Neil Diamond, Wayne Newton, and Barry Manilow among others were taking notes between ovations. Only Diamond would achieve the level of accolades Presley had as a live act. Newton and Manilow would achieve riches preaching to their respective choirs though. Elvis was able to showcase the spoils of rock and roll history with his live show. Neil was able to showcase an immense catalog of original populist music. Wayne and Barry could only disguise weak voices on shopworn tunes that found a home in the pre-soccer mom era. Let’s call them soap opera moms for the sake of argument.

If he were still here today (Sorry folks, I’m one of the nutcases who think he died in 1977) I would think that Elvis would cop to the fact that he owed more than just a tossed scarf to Tom Jones when it came to his seventies live shows. Jones was already incorporating a lot of what Elvis would use to remake himself for his new role as a road warrior. I would also guess that Tom enjoyed seeing what Elvis could do as much as the rest of us. He‘s just that kind of guy.

This post is starting to drag, so let’s go to the tape as they say….

Standouts are many and with the expanded version we get even more to enjoy. His take on Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is one of the best covers of his career. He easily summons the emotional turmoil of the original but his vocal lends a bit more melancholy than Shannon’s. The call and response of the backup singers is mined to perfection. It’s about as fine a two minutes and eighteen seconds as he ever committed to vinyl. Then, several tracks later we get a rare live version of “Kentucky Rain,” which is just an update of “Runaway” if you think about it, that will have you reaching for an umbrella. It’s pretty close to the recorded version, but again, he injects it with enough passion to have us out looking for her too by songs end. I should mention that James Burton carries the day with his guitar on both of these “Have You Seen Me?” pleas.

What should have been an eye roller actually turns out to be one of the best vocal performances of his career with “The Wonder Of You.” I could probably write a whole post (don’t tempt me) on his approach to this song. Saddled with a lyric that Hallmark would likely reject, but redeemed by a rolling melody that he effortlessly rides without looking down we’re reminded that sometimes a singers job is to actually sing a song. He knows exactly when to zig and zag on this one. No doubt a lot of rehearsal went into pulling this one off live and they knew they were recording this show so it probably benefits from that knowledge. This one pops up on oldies radio now and then, try to hear it with different ears and catch the nuance of his vocal and the power of the melody. Listen when he sings the line “I guess I’ll never know the reason why you love me as you do.” At that moment he’s still that kid from the streets of Memphis filled with an ache to sing for anyone who’ll listen. A careful listen to the lyrics and one could argue that the song is really a simple Valentine to all of his fans.

Hard rockin’ but loose takes on “See See Rider,” “Proud Mary,” and “Long Tall Sally” let us know that Sun may be out of business, but rock never went out of style. MOR staples “Release Me” and “Let It Be Me” have been done by everyone so it’s no surprise that he wanted to put his stamp on them too. And stamp he does. These live versions bring the intended urgency to the more staid versions already out there. If the originals were a guilty pleasure before, his recording them gives you a legitimate reason to like them.

Rushed versions of “Sweet Caroline” and “Suspicious Minds” make you wonder what might have been, but they’re not toss offs either. He was clearly moved by the sentiment of “Sweet Caroline” and not ready to cease basking in the glow of “Suspicious Minds.“ Faithful and impassioned offerings of “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “In The Ghetto” prove that he could still be moved by a lyric just like the rest of us. A wild and rocking version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” owes more to Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions” than to Ray Charles‘ “Modern Sounds In Country And Western.” The band is hitting it hard on all fronts and he works overtime to be heard above them. This is easily the best take by him on this one. A couple of times he tries to ground it a bit, but finally succumbs to the band and tears down the house right along with them.

Lastly this would be where he would debut the soon to be live staple “Polk Salad Annie.” It wouldn’t be long before he would just end up riffing on this one and try to milk the drama from it with scripted interplay from the band. On this night though he sticks to the script and pulls it right out from under Tony Joe White’s truck bed. It starts out down in Louisiana fighting off alligators to eat some polk salad, but by the time he gets done with it it’s up river in Memphis and sitting next to some ribs. There’s no way White wasn’t thinking of Elvis when he was writing this song.

As you can see from the top of this post, this was also one of the best album covers he ever had in his lifetime. This would be one of the rare times that a candid, unguarded photo of him would be used for an album cover. It’s absolutely a stunning photo. I wish I could credit the photographer, but I can’t find any info on the shot. Juxtapose this photo with the one on his debut album and you get a sense of how far he had traveled. Gone was the teenaged rocker with a beat up guitar. He was now the king of the whole wide world. The clothes he now wore were that of royalty. One thing is present on both covers though, he’s deep into the song he’s singing and his eyes are closed on both covers. The guitar has been replaced by a microphone and the jewelry he’s wearing didn’t come from a Memphis pawn shop.

Clearly the times were changing around him. In the next few years they would begin to swirl to the point that it was two completely different people on those album covers. He knew it better than anyone. For the rest of us it’s pretty much been one long case of denial.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What A Dream I Had Last Night...

A quick review of Art Garfunkel in Kansas City, July 26, 2007

(A recent photo lifted from the Rolling Stone website due to the no camera's enforcement here)

The thrill of seeing live music has been on the wane with me for many years. Probably too many shows when I was younger and too much to do now to allocate the necessary effort they require. That said, I still know when something comes along with just me in mind and will still go that extra mile. Catching Art Garfunkel last evening at the Folly Theater was one of those times. This was the latest, and best, in the Cyprus Avenue at the Folly Theater series. Topping this one should be their new mission statement as far as I’m concerned.

To me this was an event of the highest order come to our fair city. Legends come and go and on this evening one dropped by to serenade us. Just knowing the artist, the song catalog and the venue assured everyone there of a special evening. It was like knowing who was gonna win before the game starts, the only thing left to determine was the margin.

As a pure vocalist he has had few peers in his lifetime. And at sixty five his voice may have lost some edge if hitting the highest of notes is the assignment. The assignment though is to move the listener and he’s still able to do that in ways I wasn‘t prepared for. His voice now sports a richness honed over decades of singing and his phrasing takes its place among any of the great pop singers. His latest recording of standards proves that he’s never lost his love for the “song.” He may have been fortunate enough to sing the songs of Paul Simon for the past forty plus years, but he knows he’s in an ocean, not a backyard pool when it comes to lending his voice out. For fans like me it’s a joy to hear him tackle anything.

I won’t go song for song or debate this or that, the Kansas City Star did a fine job of covering the nuts and bolts of the show. For my money it’s the way he presented himself and the music that elevated the evening. Working with just a four piece group and sticking to basic, only slightly textured arrangements, he managed to make the theater resemble a large recording studio. His praise of the theater and the crowd was off the cuff and never once did you feel he was having any less an enjoyable time than the audience. Apparently this was the first night of a short tour and he admitted to some nervousness. I suspect he’s a perfectionist when it comes to his music. And why shouldn’t he be, he’s offering quite a canon of American Popular Music.

Opening with Paul Simon’s solo era composition of “American Tune” was an inspired choice on several levels. First it let us know that a lot of thought went into his set list. Second, that he’s still very much connected to the ideals of the sixties and other peoples dreams not just his own. Taking a thirty five year old song, that hasn’t aged a day when you examine the lyrics, sent out a powerful statement. The evening of course wasn’t all heavy handed and there were more than enough light hearted moments to go around.

Including his own version of “The Boxer” was for me, the ticket price, parking and a cocktail (plus tip) all rolled into one. The song stands for me as one of the greatest of the twentieth century. (This link will take you to an earlier blog entry I did going on and on about it) Many others have covered the song, but I’ve never heard anyone other than him and Simon do it justice. It’s just too personal a song and others just can’t seem to get inside of it. But, if I could sing I’m sure I’d take a swing at it too.

Other special moments included his take on “Kathy’s Song” and “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her.” Two songs that showcase the pure poet in Paul Simon. Either song could stand alone as a written poem without the music. Both performances bordered on a cappella and he had the crowd hanging on every word. And speaking of the crowd, they couldn’t have been better. There was silence while he was singing and silence while he was talking and enough applause to fill a much bigger hall. I may have to get out for a few more of these concerts.

I went there thinking an evening like this would make me feel young again by seeing someone from my musical youth. It didn’t. What it did make me feel was glad to be the age I am so that I could remember what it was like hearing all of those songs for the first time. (That was worth price of my wife’s ticket) To be a kid again and hear the DJ say that at the top of the hour he would play new music from Simon & Garfunkel, “a song about going to the Zoo.” Collecting all of their singles with the picture sleeves, then buying the album later, or seeing “The Graduate” and hearing their music used to such perfection up there on the screen. Youth isn’t wasted on the young, you just have to be older to enjoy it.

The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones are no doubt the gateway through which the music of the sixties is filtered for the most part. No real argument here, but I would hate to think what my music collection would have been like without Paul and Art. Here’s wishing Art a successful rest of the tour and a nod to Paul, whenever we may find him.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Dusty Old Fairgrounds....

A rambling (but mostly sober) meditation on the Fourth of July, Carnivals, the Circus, Annette, Fairyland Park, Bruce Springsteen, photography, patriotic songs and The Twilight Zone.

For no particular reason that I’m aware of I’ve never been to the circus. It wasn’t planned that way, it’s just never happened. Carnivals, and old school theme parks along with county fairs are another story though. To those I am the moth to their flame. Other than the clowns that have fallen out of favor over the years, (thanks no doubt to the likes of John Wayne Gacey and Shakes) the circus seems to be a fun time for family and friends. An assault on the senses for kids from one to ninety two.

A roadside carnival or fairground midway on the other hand seem to house a darker more sinister side of life. Maybe it’s the location of the park or the transient nature of the carnival that saps the colors from them and makes it all seem like something in sepia and covered in a “don’t touch that” patina from another time and place. (HBO’s “Carnivale” did nothing to restore them to family fare.) No doubt the steady parade of slice and dice movies over the years have given carnivals a less than warm and fuzzy vibe to overcome.

I try to not miss any carnivals that come to my area these days. I never set foot on a single ride, but I never arrive without my camera either. I’m there to capture what it is that makes them so seductive to me. Things have changed since I was a youth of course. The calliope has been replaced with whatever radio station plays the loudest music and most of the carnival workers today seem to have a an affordable dental plan. Insurance on the other hand has made bumper cars something you have to convince young people ever existed while the “Tunnel Of Love,” the “Freak Show” and “House Of Horrors” are now mostly seen in movies just before the acute loss of some slow moving teenager’s blood.

I tripped once getting off of the Octopus, other than that no lingering scars. Looking back I’ve fared much better in the big scheme of things than Martin Sloan (Gig Young) did in the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance.” But, I digress as I think back to those summer days and nights of colored lights, barkers, lead milk bottles, dull tipped darts, stuffed giraffes, holding on tight and foods no parent would let their kid look at today.

If you are from this area and grew up during the dying days of Fairyland Park in the sixties and seventies then you know what it is that I’m eluding to here. No movie set or memory can eclipse the actual experience of wondering those grounds as a youth. Nothing is left today but some photos, ride tickets, faded postcards and fading memories. (This link will take you to a page of photos shot by local photographer Chris Thomas who chronicled it in the days before it took its final breath.) If I could go back in time just once it would be to stand on those grounds again. I wish I could tell you why, but I have no idea. Maybe I think I’ll run into Gig Young or Rod Serling and we‘ll snap a few pictures in front of the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Somewhere along the way these permanent and mobile theme parks became associated with the Fourth of July. Off the top of my head I would guess Disney had something to do with it. I’m sure it didn’t start there but until he gave it his endorsement it probably wasn’t the tie-in it is today. Some people knock Disney, I don’t know, if it has to do with Annette then it’s fine with me.

This fourth of July will also provide no shortage of songs about the holiday for us to endure, if not occasionally sing along with. Most of them overwrought and devoid of any real meaning in today’s world. We will hear countless butchering’s of the national anthem or “America” and in the end be reminded of what a treasure Ray Charles was. Lee Greenwood will be dusted off while “Boy” George W. will take up valuable air, and airtime, telling us how great we all are on this particular day. Flags of all sizes and “These Colors Don’t Run” bumper stickers will outsell iPods for a day or two and then it will be business as usual again for us working stiffs.

For me though when it comes to accompanying soundtracks, the holiday always recalls Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” Using a boardwalk carnival as its backdrop and metaphor, this song never fails to conjure up a steamy summer night of salty sea air blowing down a dilapidated stretch of beach on that vaunted Jersey shore. Two luckless lovers ponder their fate in a world that uses concrete instead of sand for its foundation. Time is passing them by and at their young age they feel life is like one of those rides that just keeps spinning faster and faster. They passed on the chance to grow up the first couple of times the ride stopped for them. Now they feel like it just won’t slow down long enough for them to jump on.

This song and its sentiment would eventually give birth to the album “Born To Run.” Most of the themes of that album are on display here in and behind the lyrics of this song. After that album it would be a mixed bag but nothing can erase the first time I heard that song. I’ll catch up with it sometime over the holiday and all will be as it should in my corner of the world. Maybe while watching a Ferris Wheel against the night sky.

To bring this ramble to its eventual close I guess this is what America means to me.
(If you’re still reading, this link will take you to my photo blog entry of a roadside carnival from 2006 that I shot)

Have a safe holiday everyone.