What can you say about a concert where the star says "I ain't gonna work too hard tonight, hell, I just got through eatin'" and you think he means it? In the case of Elvis Presley at the International in Las Vegas in January 1971, it's just another night's work. But beneath the surface is an indication that his audience will accept the performer no matter what he chooses to do, a notion that will ultimately ruin the man and his music.
In the previous few months Elvis Presley is a busy man. In September, 1970 he enjoys a nine city tour, his first since the end of 1957 (!!) and a brief Nashville singles session that also wraps up the superb 'Elvis Country' album. "That's The Way It Is" opens in November to respectable reviews and decent business while the Presley team hits the US west coast for eight more successful shows. Right before the usual Christmas holiday festivities in Memphis, he has a fight with his wife and father and flies alone to Washington DC, getting a private meeting with President Richard Nixon and an authentic DEA badge in the process.
A few weeks later one of the acknowledged high points of his life comes 16 January, 1971, at a Saturday evening awards banquet in Memphis. Elvis is a recipient of the "One of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year" award from the US Junior Chamber of Commerce, also known as the "Jaycee Award." It is one of his proudest moments, reflecting acceptance, respect and recognition from a society that had once vilified him. He will never travel without the award at his bedside.
Despite all of this, the energy is mostly there but the inspiration is running low entering his fourth Vegas season in seventeen months. Maybe it's a little too much Vegas and not enough America or Europe. 'Snowbird' cages a soundboard tape from a Friday midnight set less than two weeks after the Jaycee Award ceremony, on the 29th of January, 1971. Only two other such tapes from this year, both from January, have surfaced onto "import" CDs: one from Wednesday the 27th ('All Things Are Possible') and the other from Thursday the 28th ('Lean, Mean and Kickin' Butt'). Of this trio, 'Snowbird' boasts a decent audio quality closer to 'Lean,' with a mix that is as much Presley's voice as anything else. However, 'All Things' remains the best sounding of the three.
The folks at 2001 offer a clever six page booklet design, evoking the "Snowbird" idea with a clouds theme ("If I could, you know that I would fly, away with you") and boasting several color and BxW photos from the era. In particular there is a stunning back cover shot, circa 1971, of Presley at his Bel Air gates laughing at a guy on the other side who happens to be sporting big sunglasses and huge sideburns! The truth is out: Elvis actually met one of his pathetic imitators. As he used to say to his guys, "they can't be normal, actin' that way."
Friday's live experience is short. Elvis must've had girlfriend Joyce Bova waiting in his suite upstairs. After snoring through the intro, he drops the bridge from "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." The dynamic "Polk Salad Annie" socks the clock at a little less than three minutes. A quick listen to 'All Things Are Possible' proves it wasn't like this a few nights before! In fact, the fifteen song gig is over and done in barely 40 minutes. Unless the tape has been edited, this has to be one of those shows where long time pal and light man Lamar Fike berated his boss for delivering less than his best.
Despite such musical brevity, we get moments that make these CDs unique. Finishing a high octane "Polk Salad Annie," Presley states "these beads almost beat me to death!" Yes, Elvis is once again adorned in the infamous "fringe" suit, as documented on the cover of the 1971 Camden budget LP 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' As he amusingly relates to the crowd his experience the previous November, "I had this outfit made for LA one night and had the fringe all the way to the floor ... I finished the show and got tangled up ... I couldn't leave ... hung up in the cord, microphone ... at the end of the show I'll fly away!"
Although singer and band are sloppy (as goes Elvis, so goes the TCB Band), there are some rockin' romps through "That's All Right, Mama" and "Johnny B. Goode," a terrific rendition of "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" and even an uncredited snatch of "Loving You," just before a stand-alone "Teddy Bear." The seldom-performed Anne Murray hit "Snowbird" that kicks off the 'Elvis Country' album is here, with Presley joshing to the band before one of two false starts, "What's the middle of it? I got the rest of it." It's very nicely done, despite being an atypical song for him. After joking with some Atlanta fans near the stage that "people from Atlanta think that when they die they go to Memphis," Elvis closes with "The Impossible Dream," a tune he toys with throughout the year as a final number. Ultimately, the great "Can't Help Falling In Love" will be the standard closer for the remainder of his life.
Somehow, Presley's management didn't innately sense that Elvis' threshold for boredom had been reached by January, 1971. Is it possible that there are other reasons for returning to Sin City? You bet your blue suede shoes there are. Sadly, like the singer's ever-growing dependency on prescription drugs, his manager is addicted to gambling. Neither would defeat their personal demons before the decade finished. 'Snowbird' marks where this battle began to be lost.