on 12 November 2012
At this stage in his reborn career, you could forgive Elvis Presley for starting to coast, which is what he did six months' later on the Aloha From Hawaii televised concert.
However, there is a power and intensity in these concerts which is even far removed from Elvis On Tour, filmed in April 1972: it is as if the vibe from his cover of Arthur Alexander's Burning Love had spilled over into this, and that Elvis still had plenty to prove.
Madison Square Garden certainly brought the best out of Elvis, after all it was where the Concert For Bangladesh took place, and also where, in 1969, the live recordings for the Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya Yas Out took place. Even one of his contemporaries, at the height of his powers, and in his Annus Mirabilis, 1969, Johnny Cash performed an amazing concert in the Garden, which was only issued in 2002.
However, like Vegas in 1956, and New York in 56 too, Elvis didn't exactly go down a storm: he needed to redeem himself. In 1969, he came back with a vengeance in Vegas, performing with a unparalleled intensity, and with a new band. In 1972, he also needed to redeem himself in New York, and he was equally intense, equally on the ball. He opened, not with Ma Rainey's CC Rider, but rather with 1954's That's All Right, Mama, channeling the intensity of that apparently bygone era. He continued both sets with his versions of contemporary rock, i.e John Fogerty's Proud Mary, Hoyt Axton's Never Been To Spain, Dusty Springfield's You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, and You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling. He then truncated Polk Salad Annie, but the bass by Jerry Scheff, was on a par with Duck Dunn's bass on Tony Joe White's live version on That On The Road Look, and Elvis knew, in 1972, that his band could rock just as hard as any other band. However, the pure swampiness of both Annie, and Never Been to Spain, suggest that, as opposed to the maudlin ballads that Elvis preoccupied himself with from 1973 onwards, Elvis would have been better singing material from the pen of Tony Joe White and Bobbie Gentry. The swampy southern rock side really suited Elvis, and he should have done a lot more, having had the perfect opportunity recording in Stax.
After Polk Salad Annie, Elvis decided to do some of his oldies. Unlike the 1974 performances, where he medleyed them, he really went for them with a great intensity. Blue Suede Shoes may have lasted only a minute, but it was a minute of pure intensity. Likewise, Reconsider Baby highlights that James Burton could really play the blues: a fact that Elvis Costello picked up on, when he recorded Eisenhower Blues for King Of America in 1986. You also get Heartbreak Hotel, and a really quick, intense tear through All Shook Up. The only time, however, that Elvis is in any way perfunctory is when he bounces into Teddy Bear / Don't Be Cruel, and you can hardly blame him. After all, the success of Teddy Bear led to Rock A Hula Baby, No Room to Rhumba, and countless other movie songs. It really does show the ensuing emasculation of the great artist, yet Don't be Cruel retains its excellence.
The home stretch shows that Elvis was even turning his hand to show tunes, i.e. Man From La Mancha's Impossible Dream, but that there was an edge to them. He wasn't, yet, the bloated balladeer crooning Softly As I Leave You, Hurt, or The Last Farewell. He still had the quality control on his music, and he had the intensity to turn Impossible Dream into a work that suggested he was still looking for a musical something, a musical hidden gem, and personal quest allied to the hidden wonder of music.
Elvis continued with An American Trilogy, a Romneyesque flag-waver, far-removed from Mickey Newbury's original from the Mabel Joy album. Newbury wrote it from the prospective of Vietnam, street fighting, and as a protest. Elvis saw it as him uniting the states; it was his state of the union, medleying the southern Dixie with the Battle Hymn of The Republic, and the Negro spiritual All My Trials. It became what Elvis envisaged himself to be, without any comments on Vietnam, Mayor Daley, etc. It was Sinatra's House Where I Live In for the 1970s, and the air of the apolitical entertainer. It was also a side-step from If I Can Dream and In The Ghetto to An American Trilogy. One does wonder what would happen if Elvis performed it stripped down a la Newbury, but Elvis probably saw himself as losing income if he criticised the union. I also wonder how, in this instance, Elvis would have approached Robbie Robertson's Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, but it would, probably, just have been a form of entertainment for him,a nd not a protest.
The country-esque approach continues with Funny How Time Slips Away and I Can't Stop Loving You. Elvis would have heard Willie Nelson, pre outlaw, pre marijuana, performing this bluesy country ballad. He may have been familiar with Bobby Hinton's version, and with Jerry Lee Lewis on Country Songs for City Folks, Again, the intensity remains undimmed, yet Elvis is also good-humoured. His work on I Can't Stop Loving You is radically different to Ray Charles's country meets blues version, with a neat false ending. Bob Dylan borrowed the Presley false-ending on Peggy Day on Nashville Skyline, but here Elvis takes it back wonderfully.
Both concerts close with Can't Help Falling In Love, which was the usual concluding track. You may ask which concert was my favourite. I would state the Afternoon concert, as it is intense yet looser. However, where did it all go wrong ? In six months, Elvis's perceived peak was Aloha From Hawaii, yet Aloha was an unstructured ballad heavy mess in my opinion. Elvis knew, at this concert, how to structure his shows, and wasn't going through the motions.
The drugs certainly took a hold from 1973 onwards, and concerts became extremely hit or miss affairs. Stories abound of unfocussed 40 minute karate demonstrations, of rants about being strung-out, of Suspicious Minds performed to the tune of What Now My Love, and of the same old songs being churned out as if they were live equivalents of the movie soundtracks. It just seems, on the basis of the two CDs and DVD contained herein, an horrendous shame that Elvis, himself, was caught in a trap from which he couldn't walk out.