HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM...(Audionics 2013-02-2)
Over the years it has developed a mythical status amongst fans because, intriguingly, no recording of any kind has been available before to demonstrate whether its reputation was properly deserved. Now at last we have the audio evidence, in great soundboard quality no less, to hear for ourselves what those present witnessed on that fateful afternoon.
It is presented in an attractively designed digipack with three photos from Houston showing Elvis arriving by car, performing on stage and boarding his plane after the show and several more showing him in concert the following day. Although Elvis appears overweight and bloated in these shots, none of these are sufficiently shocking to provide any extra clues about his condition for the featured show.
The mix and sound quality are very good and the total running time is listed at 79.22mins which is longer than normal for shows at this time. The liner notes state that the 2001 opening and the first part of See See Rider were not taped, with the result that the recording conveniently falls within the running time capacity for one CD.
The text plays down the impact of his performance, stating that 'it doesn't deserve the reputation of being his worst show ever' but significantly failing to cite any that are as bad. It also suggests that the audio evidence doesn't support reports 'that the audience were in shock and left in droves,' which is disingenuous because soundboards typically only capture the fan reaction of those close to the stage, who are invariably mesmerised by being so close to their idol. So much for the defence…
The recording starts at the end of See See Rider and immediately the full horror of Elvis' condition is exposed. His vocals are not only slurred and breathless but distressingly out of time. He calls out 'one…two….three' in the lead up to the ending as he was wont to do, but repeatedly misses the beat, which only serves to illustrate the trouble he was in. He sounds drunk and it is blatantly obvious he is stoned.
A morbidly slow and tuneless 'well, well routine' precedes I Got A Woman, which is performed in a weak and listless manner. "I'm just trying to wake up, that's all," he explains at one point during the proceedings, only this time he's not joking. J.D.Sumner is introduced as "The lowest human that I know," in a slurred voice adding, "No I'm just kidding, he's just goofing off." Then with his speaking ability further marred by an insistent stammer, he adds, "I mean all of us got up…y'know….got up….so listen to him this time," leaving J.D. to repeat his 'dive bomb routine, before finishing the song in a weak fashion.
After a pause, he addresses the audience in a slow and deliberate manner saying, "It's a pleasure to be back here and we hope you enjoy the show" and then goes on to spend an inordinate amount of time attending to fans at the front of the stage. However these exchanges are far from entertaining and the overall impression is that he is in a dazed stupor as his dialogue is slurred, intermittent and mostly inconsequential.
Several long minutes later, having ignored countless cues from his band to start the next song, he begins Love Me in a slow tempo and sounding painfully out of tune. It's a pitiful display and at one point he loses his timing completely. If You Love Me Let Me Know follows this and sounds even worse with his distracted vocals dragging well behind the beat. This song is also affected by feedback at several points.
You Gave Me A Mountain suffers from the same problems, where he sounds heavily sedated, his timing awry. Before All Shook Up he asks the crowd, "Where did you get so much energy at two thirty in the afternoon, or three, whatever it is?" Coming from someone who appears half asleep, it's a legitimate question. "A-well-a bless my soul what's wrong with me," he starts unsteadily and one can only wonder if he was aware of the irony of the lyric.
The Teddy Bear / Don't Be Cruel medley is another hopelessly lame affair and suffers from several instances of feedback. It's followed by And I Love You So, which he halts during the opening bars, calling out, ""Urr just a minute…the band is too loud, I can not hear myself," in a deadpan voice, his annoyance clear. This instance is the only reference by Elvis on this recording to the sound issues that were reported to be problematic at this show. Jailhouse Rock is next, where, to give him his due, he makes a special effort driving the band on to an extended final chorus.
After this he sings Fever, where he sounds breathless with each line an effort. America follows this and is without doubt the best performance of the show. Gamely he even reprises the ending. During Polk Salad Annie he calls out "Play it Jerry" resulting in a bass solo which was not a regular feature in performances of this song at this time. However the solo is perfunctory rather than inspired; hardly surprising given the circumstances. For the next five minutes he hesitantly attends to his ringside fans, during which he comments on the disparity between wearing a $2500 dollar suit and a $1.50 dollar hat presented by a fan. Time certainly seems to drag at this point which must have infuriated the vast majority of the audience further back in the auditorium as too much 'dead air' between songs can easily sap the energy and enthusiasm of a crowd. The band introductions follow this and as usual it's a long drawn out affair, not helped by his speech being slow and drawling, making this section especially tedious.
His singing during the band solo spots is half hearted and pedestrian, leaving Charlie Hodge to help out on Johnny B Goode in what amounts to a duet. In fact Ronnie Tutt's extended drum solo comes as a welcome relief providing a temporary respite from the spotlight on Elvis' problems. Jerry Scheff is asked to perform two solos and David Briggs is ordered to repeat his solo twice. Finally he announces, "We have a new record that I'd like to try and sing for you." The word try being all too significant. Hurt follows, with his performance best described as sounding like a record playing on a turntable with a loose drive belt. Unsurprisingly there is no reprise.
As usual the lights are turned up before Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away, which prompts more hesitant dialogue, during which he refers to the audience in the higher seats as 'The Peanut Gallery.' He then asks, "What key are we in?" before starting the song in a weak voice, struggling throughout to stay in tune. "How am I doing? Well I guess I'm doing fine" he sings, seemingly oblivious to the cruel irony of the lyric. It's another very poor performance, yet the crowd close to the stage continue to shout and shriek as if nothing is wrong.
Afterwards he thanks the audience in slow faltering speech, promising to come back if they want him back. Can't Help Falling In Love follows, where he appears totally shot and barely able to sing at all. The recording includes the closing announcement ‘Elvis has left the building.’ Yes indeed, although in truth one might contend that he was never really there in the first place.
So ends an absolute train wreck of a show. Sadly, on the basis of the audio evidence presented here, there is no room for any alternate view. In fact if his movement and demeanour were as badly affected as his obvious inability to speak and sing, his performance could easily have seemed much worse to those present on the day.
In conclusion, this show is not easy to listen to, but despite this, it is a required and compelling study for fans who want to know how bad it actually was. It has been singled out in numerous reports in the history books, so it is a real bonus that we now have access to it. It proves that its reputation was deserved and essentially correct; the show was an outright disaster. Moreover, the fact that it has sparked so much interest and comment amongst fans on the message boards is further validation for its release.
[Review by Mike Sanders]