Thirty five years ago this week Elvis Presley played New York City for the first time (amazingly considering Elvis’ career was at the time 18 years old and he had been the biggest star in the business for most of that time) and laid the city on its back. Over the years, critics have gotten a little dismissive of the show within the confines of the anti-70s Elvis mythology. Being that two of Elvis’ shows from this historic stand have been released on CD as Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden and An Afternoon in the Garden, we can decide for ourselves. Listening to both shows this week, I could hear the warts but overall it was and remains a great show: one of the definitive pop experiences.
Unlike the legendary ’68 Comeback shows in a small theater or even the initial Vegas performers which were in a more intimate show room setting, the Garden, as an arena demanded a different type of show. The folks in the back row were a lot farther away than were in those venues and they deserved a show as well. It was also a context that could make an artist seem small.
Occasionally in the 1950s, Elvis faced such a venue. But Elvis was a different man and a different artist than he had been then. And audiences were a lot more jaded when it came to live entertainment than they had been in those days. Plus, the intervening years had seen the legend of Elvis Presley balloon, particularly in places he had never been before. Just showing up and singing your heart out might be an anti-climax when folks are expecting the Earth to move.
With that in mind, Elvis, in these shows in particular and from this point in general, worked to provide an overwhelming sense of spectacle to his audience. The goal was for them to feel after the show was over that they had really seen something. The spectacular costumes, the ostentatious arrangements, the speed of the show all went to satisfy this goal.
Although we can’t see Elvis on the Garden CDs and we can never get the complete being there vibe, we can understand what so set the New York critics of the era and fans on their collective ears. That is not to say that this ranks with the greatest music of his career although there is some great music here, but it was a great show.
For years, I had underrated the original MSG album because I was looking for great music and missing the spectacle. But when you imagine what it must have been like to actually have shared the same space with ELVIS PRESLEY and a crowd of 20,000 people, it delivers on all levels.
The performance is meticulously thought out. The 2001 “Thus Spake Zarathrusta” opening builds anticipation and also befits Elvis’ mythical stature by 1972. A legend at 21, an institution at 37 and one of pop’s great mystery figures, a sighting of Elvis Presley did not happen every day. The opening has been criticized, copied and parodied in the years since but Elvis Presley was the only performer for whom it was appropriate.
The number builds to a pitch and we’re almost caught by surprise by Ronnie Tutt’s rolling drums and the blaring horns and then we hear a roar from the crowd- ELVIS PRESLEY IS IN THE HOUSE!
Many of Elvis’ fans will appreciate the opening “That’s All Right Mama”. It started his career and it’s appropriate to start the show. Elvis sings it in an arrangement very much along the lines of his alternate opening “CC Rider”, at a break neck tempo not much like his Sun 45. It doesn’t matter; he performs the song with authority and violence. Bursting with instruments and voices, it’s loud and it’s fast. It’s not great music but it physically and psychically involves us (the latter by its place in Elvis' iconography). So, it is a great opening.
Without a pause, we’re into “Proud Mary”. Again this is much different than the version that Elvis sang on stage in 1970 or the hit versions by Creedence Clearwater Revival or Ike and Tina Turner. It’s a big band Vegas arrangement, taken again at lightning speed. This speed has often been taken as a measure of disinterest. This is not the case as, with “That’s All Right Mama”, Elvis sings the song with some violence and the idea is for it to set us back which it does.
Next up after the obligatory “thank yous”, Elvis slows the show down and shows that the artist is still alive inside the showman with “Never Been to Spain”. The original hit of this Hoyt Axton composition by Three Dog Night had only been gone from the charts a few months. It’s a shame that Elvis didn’t get first crack at this song because it really suits him.
With a lyric that is both abstract and witty, Elvis clearly relishes singing the song giving a little snarl on the word “I’ve” from the line “I’ve got to feel” just before the chorus. It’s a great arrangement starting out with just Elvis and the rhythm section on the verses and then virtually everyone on stage hammering home the climax. It’s a song that’s about the underlying absurdity of life and this climax finds Elvis embracing that absurdity. It’s far better than the original version and it was powerful enough that decades later when Kid Rock was asked about Elvis he started singing “Never Been to Spain”.
From there we move on into Elvis’ most recent top 20 single “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”. Elvis’ phrasing is a little sloppy here but his authority and the overwhelming aural arrangement carry the day. If you can envision Elvis in his powder blue jump suit stalking about the stage, this is the kind of performance that you would imagine inspired the New York Times reporter Chris Chase to comment about how Elvis making how things are done more important than the thing itself. There’s so much confidence and brio here, we don’t much care that we’re not getting all we could musically.
Elvis gives us a fairly committed “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” next. It’s not as good as the 1970 versions much less the great Righteous Brothers’ record, but it does slow us down and it is very respectable. Next up is a radically re-arranged “Polk Salad Annie,” again at a lightning tempo and featuring some fine contemporary rock bass work by Jerry Scheff. Again not as good as the versions in 1970, but Elvis has once again shifted tempos successfully and one imagines with his karate moves added some visual panache as well.
This opening segment of the show, featuring no song older than eight years old after “That’s All Right Mama,” serves two functions. One, it establishes that Elvis is no oldies act. He is not just about a handful of hits 15 years ago. At the same time though, it also works as a kind of foreplay for those hits that the audience has been expecting.
In a brilliant piece of execution, Elvis lets almost all of them flow forth at once (again with a nice balance of fast and slow) to overwhelm the crowd by moving them from one high to another while still building a “what’s next” anticipation. “Love Me”, “All Shook Up”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Teddy Bear”/”Don’t Be Cruel”, “Love Me Tender”, and for the afternoon crowd “Blue Suede Shoes”. This part of the show functions as an effective memory lane for the audience. You can’t understate how powerful a tool it is for a pop idol to play out so many shared memories in the flesh. I recently saw BJ Thomas, a much more minor figure with fewer and generally smaller hits do it, and it thrilled everyone. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to see and hear Elvis Presley do the same thing on a grander scale.
For today’s listener and the diehard fan that has heard dozens of these shows, it’s hard to recreate that impact. But, it must be said, that although Elvis speeds through these numbers, his performance is not yet bored and there is still some pop in his phrasing on all these numbers. While these numbers didn’t retain a personal connection with him, he realized the audience loved them and he’s having fun singing them.
Depending on which show you’re hearing, we soon get the number everyone has been waiting for “Hound Dog”. Normally, this was one of the least interesting numbers in Elvis’ show in the 1970s but here, in the biggest city in the US, it’s fun and unpredictable. Elvis teases the audience by introducing it as a song he did on the Ed Sullivan show in 1912. Although it wasn’t that long ago and he did many songs on the show, everyone knows what song he is talking about. You can hear squeals from the audience almost as he soon as he says it. He sputters a bit on the intro and teases the audience even more. Going into the song, the tension does let up as Elvis surprises and surely disappoints the audience with a slow funky blues type version of his most legendary hit. Then right when you think the audience is just about ready to accept this as better than nothing, he launches into the fast tempo that is ingrained in his audience’s collective memories. The crowd ROARS!!!! I can picture fans talking with glee about this big tease and release after the show.
While Elvis sings the song with commendable heart, it’s another example of something that is not a great piece of music but is a great piece of showmanship. And it shows why Elvis’ show also became so problematic in later years. You can see what a song like this means to the audience and Elvis’ enjoyment of his audience’s delight is palpable. The problem became how to satisfy that audience craving without losing interest himself. He never quite solved the dilemma and later on, unwisely, let the concept carry itself without any help from him. (Strangely, sadly it worked.)
Elvis manages to please both the crowd and himself with a generally respectable treatment of “Suspicious Minds” a basically contemporary hit and his live show stopper.
While most of the show has been for the crowd, Elvis takes some time for himself on the next few members with a beautifully articulated version of Ray Price’s “For the Good Time” which provides really the only understatement in this evening/afternoon of bombast. For the first time, Elvis and the audience have a chance to reflect.
Elvis seizes upon that to reflective mood to lay the way for his latest flop single “An American Trilogy” except for a slight mock on the evening show, a standout in both performances. It is beautifully sung by Elvis and gets the audience to thinking about all sorts of things from race to region to unity. The finale lets the audience know just how capable a singer Elvis Presley is. He’s not just a mumbler like their parents told them.
The next number “Funny How Time Slips Away” is a bit of a throw away but also serves as an ironic comment on how much Elvis and his audience have shared. Then Elvis moves to knock everyone back on their heels just one more time with a stunning performance of “I Can’t Stop Loving You”.
At the evening show in particular, this becomes the perfect melding of music and showmanship. It is not a song primarily associated with Elvis but especially at the evening show he completely reinvents the song making any comparisons to previous versions irrelevant. He screams out the opening and accompanied by blaring horns and some great James Burton guitar licks ending each line, he transforms what had been a song of resignation into a song of defiance. We get some of his most inventing phrasing of the entire decade here as breaks lines and words in half for emphasis and we also get a great gospelized fake ending which I’ve never heard him do in another context. Again he’s drawing inspiration from the audience, teasing them. Could this be as much a statement/tribute to the audience as the closing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” just seconds away?
The swelling orchestra and voices on the final notes of the beautiful melody of the latter number give us as much a sense of spectacular loss as “Also Sprach Zarathrusta” gave us a sense of anticipation. We close on the same notes we opened and are told “Elvis has left the building.” These are the words we don’t want to hear because in that 53 minutes to an hour that we’ve spent in his presence, we know we’ve heard something.
PS- Although my comments cover both shows they are primarily about the evening show because that was the show Elvis fans shared for years and most critics attended. However, it does bear saying that the afternoon show is much better. Not only does it include a few more songs including a lovely “I’ll Remember You” while omitting only “The Impossible Dream”, Elvis is in absolute terrific spirits and gives generally more care and attention to his phrasing. He also acknowledges the setting in a “Hello New York” although this banter could have been cut from the evening show by RCA.
Last edited by likethebike on Tue Nov 13, 2012 10:42 am, edited 2 times in total.