Opening Night 1971 (Flaming Phoenix, 2010)
Opening Night 1971 is a reasonable attempt to reconstruct a "complete" version of Elvis' opening night at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, his fourth such endeavor since July 1969.
Since the soundboard source for the January 26, 1971 OS tape is incomplete due to tape damage, Flaming Phoenix Productions -- now there's a modest moniker -- has assembled a full performance by stitching together the eleven useable cuts with a half-dozen from the January 27 MS and another seven from the January 28 MS.
The tapes for these three dates are not, at first glance, simply copies from preexisting private and legal releases like All Things Are Possible (DAE), Lean Mean, And Kickin' Butt (Fort Baxter) or The Impossible Dream (FTD). Instead, there is a refreshing lack of added compression or reverb throughout, indicating use of a source closer to the originals. This allows for a uniform listening experience, which is pleasant. In general, the sound is quite good, perhaps the best of all known 1971 soundboard tapes.
However, for fans that have closely followed Elvis' return to live performance starting in 1969, these tapes are a bit disturbing. From the spectacular Vegas return, on through two more bookings in 1970, and into the New Year, it's plainly clear Presley has exhausted his interest in the big funky angels and all the other trappings at the biggest hotel on the strip. It's a challenge, on a good night, for a standard act to keep a typical Vegas audience engaged, let alone an artist as creative and talented as Elvis Presley.
And so the intensity of the previous year and a half gives way to rushed tempos, half-forgotten or joke lyrics, and the sense that there is nothing at stake. And, of course, there isn't. The fans are happy to simply see Elvis in front of them, he doesn't really have to reach for his best, and they'll take whatever he wants to give them. It marks the beginning of a long, slow slide that will culminate in the dark days of 1976-77, where the bar has been set so low that each Presley performance will be considered a success if he's able to prowl the stage for about an hour, sing a tiny bit, and leave on his own power.
Still, at this point, there are nice moments to enjoy for the first time, like Elvis' very special introduction of the man who was going to make all his Hollywood dreams come true back in 1956.
"Uh, my first big movie contract was with a gentleman, uh, by the name of Hal Wallis. Mr. Wallis made, uh, about ten of my movies, and the one I did in 'Blue Hawaii,' there's a song in it, I usually close our show with it, but I'm going to do it early tonight. Let's dedicate it to Mr. Wallis. You still make very good films, like 'Anne of the Thousand Days,' 'True Grit,' and, uh, I'd like to dedicate this to you, Mr. Wallis."
Presley then takes the band through his fanfare-laden arrangement of "Can't Help Falling In Love," almost never done as a mid-set number. Privately, Elvis voiced resentment that his Paramount "travelogues" made millions for Wallis and the studio, and helped finance fancy costume epics like 1964's "Becket" or the afore-mentioned "'Anne of the Thousand Days," while his shot at such big budget projects never came.
Elvis kicks off the opening night with a nicely frenetic one-two punch of "That's All Right" and "Mystery Train," although the momentum is just as swiftly killed with a careless, joke-filled rendition of "Love Me Tender." He also later steps on the introduction to "The Wonder of You" as if he wishes the song over before it begins. "Something," the 1969 Beatles hit penned by George Harrison, receives a bizarrely committed, then uncommitted, reading, right down to Presley singing "Shove it up your …" at the close. Then there's a small reprise so he can enjoy -- or leer at -- Kathy Westmoreland's obbligato, sung during the verses. Weird!
Flipping the coin, Hank Cochran's "Make The World Go Away" is a pleasant surprise this night. Part of Presley's terrific new LP, Elvis Country, the song originally charted in 1963 for Ray Price (#2, Country) and Timi Yuro (#24, Pop) and again in 1965 for Eddy Arnold (#1, Country). Here it is a concert highlight, with lead guitarist James Burton's nifty flourishes and solid lead running behind Presley as he sings every bit of the number as if he means it. And perhaps he did.
The remaining dozen or so numbers from the other evenings tell much the same tale, an Elvis occasionally engaged, sometimes not. The closing selection, "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)," is as over the top as any song Presley did on stage, but at least he has an excuse. It is the big number from the 1965 musical "Man of La Mancha." There is no truth to the rumor that Elvis is a Boston Red Sox fan. He likely finds some attachment to the tune in the premise of a man chasing his dream. "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)" is one of the only songs in the later years to supplant "Can't Help Falling In Love" as Elvis' finale.
Opening Night 1971 is housed in a digipak and sports a dynamic, unreleased full color cover photo from the engagement, with more on the inside. These shots only popped up on the internet in early February 2010. Elvis still looked sharp. This release from Flaming Phoenix -- does every man have one, over his shoulder? -- is an essential purchase, if only for the careful assembly and improved overall fidelity. Elvis Presley could still thrill a listener when he felt the urge, and these 1971 Vegas recordings should have a place in your collection.
[Johnny Savage, USA]