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
08 Memories
09 Mystery Train / Tiger Man
10 Monologue
11 Baby, What You Want Me To Do
12 Runaway / Loving You
13 Reconsider Baby
14 Are You Lonesome Tonight?
15 Yesterday / Hey Jude
16 Introductions
17 In The Ghetto
18 Suspicious Minds
19 What'd I Say
20 Can't Help Falling In Love