Elvis At The International (Follow That Dream/BMG)
Elvis At The International -- the twentieth release in the ongoing series
of fan club-only CDs from BMG's "Follow That Dream" label -- is so damn
exciting, so full of incomparable kinetic energy that it practically leaps
out of the disc player. This fabulous disc documents the midnight show of
August 23, 1969 and may just be the essential statement from Elvis'
triumphant debut run in Las Vegas. The official LP -- From Memphis To
Vegas / From Vegas To Memphis (1969) -- is polite by comparison.
About three-quarters through the month's run, the tapes reveal how
incredibly relaxed and confident Elvis has grown. The concert opens with
the one-two punch of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "I Got A Woman" -- each
bursting with life. On the former, lead guitarist James Burton peels off a
ripping solo while Presley's vocals are wild and funky. Two numbers in and
Elvis is killing the audience. Presley's bass player Jerry Scheff aptly
defines these shows as "punk rock lounge music."
The sound quality of Elvis At The International is subtle and full of
presence -- most especially on Elvis' voice. One is practically on stage
with the 33 year-old star as he sings with the same rough emotion first
heard on his TV Special the previous December. BMG does a top-notch job
eliminating the previous level disparity of other live 1969 recordings
between Presley's spoken voice and the music at full tilt. Modern
technology and eight tracks of stereo tape never sounded so good!
The set pile-drives through a selection of major early hits like "All Shook
Up," "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender" -- kisses distributed extravagantly
during the latter. "Heartbreak Hotel" is granted a reasonable blues
arrangement while "Hound Dog" -- following a crazy, two-minute spoken
introduction -- gets delivered at about 150 miles an hour!
"Memories" -- featured in his 1968 TV Special -- is the evening's most
unimpressive song. Its too-fast tempo and audience interruptions mar the
gentle, reflective nature of the sentimental Mac Davis ballad. Elvis picks
it up with a roaring rendition of his Sun single "Mystery Train," with
Rufus Thomas' "Tiger Man" tagged onto the end.
Elvis takes a nearly ten minute break to wax philosophically about his
career. Some have wrongfully accused his 1969 monologues as being
drug-fuelled -- however, this is simply wrong. Rather, they are
astonishing self-revelation and payback for all the crap Elvis endured over
the past 14 years. "So, I was doin' the Sullivan show and they were, the
cameras, were photographing me from the waist up, you know. And Sullivan's
standing over on the sideline goin', 'Sumbitch,' you know. So uh, I'm
sayin' 'Thank you, Ed, thank you.' I didn't know what he was calling me at
the time, you know. I thought he was (being) nice." As critic Greil
Marcus notes, Elvis "feels happily naked, sly, sardonic, coolly nailing his
enemies, one by one."
After twanging on his electric guitar's tremolo bar, Elvis kicks off a full
band rendering of Jimmy Reed's "Baby, What You Want Me To Do." Although
less exciting than the 1968 TV Special rendition, playing it seems to
inspire his next few performances. Del Shannon's 1961 classic "Runaway" is
a surprisingly delightful cover highlighted by a typically melodic James
Burton lead, although -- unlike Del -- Elvis is anything but distressed
about where his gal has gone. The Sweet Inspirations handle the falsetto
hook made famous by Shannon. After a teasing excerpt of "Loving You,"
Lowell Fulsom's "Reconsider Baby" -- the superb Elvis Is Back LP closer and
favorite of the Tupelo native -- is presented. It's a rare, off-the-cuff
effort that throws the band a bit. "Play something, James, put a light on
him," commands the singer during Burton's guitar solo.
Presley acknowledges the massive impact of the Beatles on the entire decade
with "Yesterday." It sounds as if American Studios' Chips Moman -- who
produced that year's great From Elvis In Memphis LP -- arranged it. At the
song's end Elvis adds nearly three and a half minutes of the coda to the
Fab Four's groundbreaking 1968 single "Hey Jude" for good measure.
After band introductions, Elvis heads for home with material from his
recent sessions in Memphis. "In The Ghetto" made the top three that summer
as a quiet protest against urban poverty -- its message is nearly
overpowered by the arrangement here. On the other hand, "Suspicious Minds"
is an astonishing eight minute tour-de-force that Elvis proudly introduces
as a new single due "out in a week or two." It deservedly makes it all the
way to number one before the year's end.
Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" is Elvis' ostensible closer and sounds nothing
like his 1963 studio recording. Presley allows guitarist Burton nearly
four minutes to solo during this rock and roll jam. Both this and
"Reconsider Baby" were previously issued years before on BMG's Collector's
Gold set, but are much more satisfying caught in their proper context.
Elvis returns for what would soon become the standard finale, "Can't Help
Falling In Love."
Beyond the high-octane music, a near-hysterical relationship between artist
and audience is exposed -- even for Las Vegas this is a wild gig. In
response or self-defense, Elvis seemingly learns to distance himself from
the messianic worship of his fans. He makes light of his fame, persona and
music all at once -- while somehow keeping deadly serious when addressing
those songs closest to his heart. For Presley, there would no going back
to the days of singing without irony.
The overall presentation cannot really be faulted but -- with hindsight --
Elvis' preference for modernized, overblown arrangements borrowed from the
1968 TV Special would clearly affect the rest of his career. Two of
Presley's most magnificent singles -- "Jailhouse Rock" and "Don't Be Cruel"
-- are dismissed in a swift medley. Sadly, Elvis never did either justice
in his later concerts. After 1969, the use of medleys would become an easy
way for Elvis to designate such vintage material as "kid stuff."
As with all things Elvis, these drawbacks are nearly eliminated by his
charisma and -- in 1969 -- by his amazing energy level. Despite it all, he
rocks! And that's what Elvis Presley was -- and still is -- all about.
[Johnny Savage, USA]
Note: a CD mastering error means the track listing is incorrect. Below is
the proper sequence.
01 Intro / Blue Suede Shoes
02 I Got A Woman
03 All Shook Up / Welcome
04 Love Me Tender
05 Jailhouse Rock / Don't Be Cruel
06 Heartbreak Hotel
07 Hound Dog
09 Mystery Train / Tiger Man
11 Baby, What You Want Me To Do
12 Runaway / Loving You
13 Reconsider Baby
14 Are You Lonesome Tonight?
15 Yesterday / Hey Jude
17 In The Ghetto
18 Suspicious Minds
19 What'd I Say
20 Can't Help Falling In Love