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.

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