Polk Salad Annie ( FTD / BMG )

It keeps getting better. With the Follow That Dream collector's label release Polk Salad Annie, BMG's Roger Semon and Ernst Jorgensen have unleashed some of the most vibrant live Elvis recordings of his final decade. Culled from Presley's second Vegas engagement, these superb multi-track tapes were made for possible use in his live LP On Stage February 1970. That they didn't make the cut is only a matter of slight imperfections -- a cough here, a chuckle there. This is Elvis, a superstar at perhaps the zenith of critical and commercial success, still carrying some of the rock and roll "edge" from his astounding 1968 TV Special.

The bulk of the disc offers the February 15 midnight show, the first RCA chose to record from this affair, and Elvis is clearly delighted to be having fun on stage. Beginning partway through a dynamic "I Got A Woman," -- the "All Shook Up" opener was not taped -- the good feeling is unmistakable. "Welcome to the Flamingo, I just work here, man, I don't know," greets the singer. He reaches back for "Long Tall Sally" -- listen for his acoustic strumming before they launch into a breakneck version of the Little Richard classic -- as well as his #1 hits "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender." They're a world away from 1956, and yet Presley's energy makes it all valid, somehow.

Another thing that keeps the older numbers genuine is the fact that Elvis incorporates several of his recent Memphis recordings, all of them hits and each an example of an artist at his best, into the set. "I got out a new record. It's not a new record, it's an old record, it's been out about a month." cracks Elvis before "Don't Cry Daddy." Never again would a Presley show feature such a balance of the hits, old and new, contemporary and classic, as in the spring of 1970. "Don't Cry Daddy," "Kentucky Rain," and "Suspicious Minds" are powerful and memorable singles and, despite some joking around here and there, are most enjoyable this night.

Elvis' choice of cover material is mostly top-shelf, from the churning rhythm and blues of "C.C. Rider" -- he'd never do this Chuck Willis number any better -- to "I Can't Stop Loving You," worlds away from the Ray Charles classic. Joe South's "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" is everything the mature Elvis needed in a contemporary piece of writing -- cogent, hip lyrics, soulful rhythm and a gospel-like vocal arrangement. Despite being shoehorned into a medley with "In The Ghetto," it is a highlight of the original live album and this CD.

The gorgeous Everly Brothers ballad, "Let It Be Me" is transformed into a show-stopper with passionate vocals and huge crescendo finale. Most of this take originally closed off 1978's A Legendary Performer, Volume 3. A most unusual sequence comes during band introductions, as Elvis name checks a member of the Bobby Morris Orchestra, thanking "the guy on the timpanis back there, his name is Eddie Graham." How often did that happen?

If "Suspicious Minds" ruled Elvis' return to the stage in August 1969, it was "Polk Salad Annie" that made hearts soar in February 1970. As with the others that have graced our turntables, tapes, CD players and iPods, this interpretation is exceptional. Elvis sinks his teeth into this swampy classic from Tony Joe White like no other, and the band does its best to hang on for dear life. Drummer Bob Lanning, in particular, gives the song some real bite. And two minutes in, Elvis lets loose with the most high-pitched laugh I've ever heard -- this is a groovin' mess o' blues, not to be missed!

Rounding out this impressive collection, a quartet of tunes from other evenings and three rehearsal tracks originally issued on BMG's Platinum box set from 1997. With a live "C.C. Rider" from February 17 we find Elvis struggling to get it started. "We're recording a live album ... if we goof up ... look at the guitar, the belt," he jokes after one of three false starts. Listen also for a neat one-liner of "Funny How Time Slips Away" just prior. The February 18 afternoon stage rehearsal is necessary to tighten up the performance of "C.C. Rider" and master Glen D. Hardin's arrangement of "The Wonder Of You." Listen as Elvis adds to Glen's work by vocally instructing his backing singers exactly how they should carry their refrains before the song's climax. The group will wax the hit single of "The Wonder Of You" at the midnight show, after a rough outing during the dinner gig -- mistakenly released on Elvis 30 #1 Hits and included here for good measure.

For those who complain that Elvis live concert discs have become tiresome, look no further than Polk Salad Annie. This is the real deal -- the man, the music and the commitment all there, with a rock and roll heart and a fire down below.

[Johnny Savage, USA]