Monday, April 16, 2007

Elvis Presley - "Polk Salad Annie"

Widely considered by casual listeners to be his comical nadir, Elvis Presley's Las Vegas years could be argued the most underrated period in the career of any major artist of the rock era. Presley began performing in Vegas not long after his famed 1968 television special (commonly known as the "'68 Comeback"). The special was, amazingly, his first live performance in nine years. All through the Hollywood years, Presley had not given a single concert.

When people who don't know any better bag on Vegas Elvis, they're really referring to his mid-70s national tours, when he really was a fat, drug-addled shadow of his former self. But the Vegas years—1969-70 especially, but also 1972—are absolutely terrific, an exhilarating career renaissance by one of the greatest American performers of the 20th century.

In 2001, BMG released a four-disc box set of Presley's Vegas years that's terrific top-to-bottom. In fact, the weakest part of the set is a performance from 1957 (his first Vegas show, pre-army years) which Presley himself considered an abysmal failure. It's not that bad, but clearly pales next to the later years. Presley is comfortable and energetic, in total control of the show. And he's backed by a crack band that includes back-up singers and a horn section; despite the unfortunate creative missteps Presley made throughout his career (and Lord knows there were many), at the very least the man never worked with hacks as far as the musicians went.

This is not to say the shows were without their comical moments. Presley was always a ham; an audio recording is mercifully unable to display his notorious karate routines whenever the band goes into an extended instrumental vamp. And it's well-documented that, although "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" remained a concert staple throughout the later years, Presley was rarely able to make it through the song's spoken-word bridge without cracking up.

The strangest element of the concerts is, without question, Presley's between song banter. To his credit, he sounds genuinely appreciative of his fans' adoration. But his sense of humour is like an underdeveloped muscle that has atrophied from lack of exercise. I won't transcribe any of the extended semi-intelligible riffs in which Presley compares himself to a squirrel (reading them wouldn't do them justice anyway); the file below offers a brief taste of the weirdness. Suffice to say that this is what happens to someone's sense of humour when he's been surrounded for his entire adult life by friends on the payroll and other sycophants who guffaw obligingly at every half-assed attempt at a joke.

In 1980, three years after Presley's death, RCA released a career-spanning box set titled simply Elvis Aron Presley (now known among fans as "the silver box"). Ostensibly assembled to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Presley's first single, the set was the first (of many) posthumous multi-disc set to compile lesser-known recordings for the serious fan, as opposed to the many all-hits albums already larding the marketplace. I found a good copy at the Record Exchange for thirty bucks, but didn't have enough money on me, and told myself I'd come back for it. A couple weeks later I still hadn't forgot about it when I went to see the mighty Big Sleep open for the Thermals at the 1st Unitarian. The guys from Beautiful World had come to the show with a few crates of LPs and CDs and set up an ad hoc record store in the hallway just off the main room. I was flipping through the vinyl when lo and behold: the silver box, in perfect shape, no price tag. I asked the guy how much, figuring if it was under thirty I'd found a steal.

"Hmm... I dunno. I guess I could give it to you for eight bucks."

Record Five (of eight) is all Vegas highlights, and it opens with a performance of "Polk Salad Annie" from February 1970. While the recording isn't a rarity (this particular concert was previously released as a stand-alone live album), it's a strong performance of one of the best mainstay songs of the later concerts. The band is tight, and Presley has room to mess around a little: listen to the band vamping away while Presley segues from his rambling introduction to a lame army joke. Once the song gets going, the choruses swing hard and the whole ensemble is in killer form.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Elvis Presley - "Polk Salad Annie (Live in Las Vegas)"

Bonus (so to speak; not from vinyl): Elvis Presley - stage banter, Las Vegas 1969

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